President Bashar Assad's pledge to bring Internet access to every home in Syria has sparked an intense debate over the impact of information technology advances in authoritarian states.
For an isolated police state such as Syria, permitting large segments of the population to have unfettered access to the Internet is a Faustian bargain: On the one hand, it is considered to be a virtual prerequisite (no pun intended) for sustained economic growth in today's global economy. On the other hand, it erodes state control over the dissemination of information.
Some Middle Eastern rulers have boldly embarked upon this path and accepted the consequences. In Egypt, the editors of The Cairo Times responded to government censorship of their print publication by creating a section on their web site with the following emblazoned in big red letters: "The Forbidden File — See what the censor has cut from our print edition" (the section was removed after the government eased its censorship).
Palestinian journalists responded to censorship of the print media with Amin.org, a site devoted to "authentic and faithful reproduction of media-related materials in their original uncensored format."
It does not appear, however, that the new Syrian president is willing to make this tradeoff. The introduction of the Internet in Syria represents an attempt to pursue the economic benefits of information technology while minimizing the political costs. The expansion of Internet access to the general public is proceeding cautiously, bounded not by technological limitations, but by the desire to maintain tight government control and regulation of the new media.
Syria first began to experiment with the Internet in 1997, when a project was launched to provide Internet access to government ministries and state-run commercial enterprises, many of which established web sites. In 1998, the government began authorizing email accounts (and later on web access) to carefully screened businesses and professionals.
However, the cost of Internet access remained well beyond the means of most Syrians. In addition to the monthly fee of 2000 Syrian Pounds ($40) and hourly usage fee of 120 SP ($2), subscribers had to pay a one-time installation fee of 5000 SP ($100). Other limitations on public access included the minuscule number of personal computers in Syria (around 300,000) and the population's lack of computer skills. As a result, Syria still has one of the lowest levels of Internet usage in the Middle East, with around 5,000-8,000 subscribers out of a population of 18 million.
The new Syrian regime has taken several steps to expand access to the Internet. In July, the government reduced the monthly fee for Internet accounts by 50 percent (but not the exorbitant installation fee), began offering e-mail-only subscriptions for a reduced charge, and announced plans to expand the number of Internet subscriptions to 200,000 by the end of next year.
In addition, a handful of Internet cafes have opened in the capital (one in the Muhajrine district on the slopes of Jebel Casioun, and another downtown, on Nasser street near the terminal of the Hejaz railway), as well as public access centers at the Assad national library and the international airport in Damascus. Free computer training courses are now offered at more than 100 centers around the country.
According to Nabil Omran, a board member of the Syrian computer society (Al-Jami'iyya al-Maa'loumatiyya al-Suriyya) that Bashar Assad has headed for several years, around 105,000 people have completed the training so far. On July 22, Assad issued a decree calling for the establishment of Internet technology departments at four Syrian universities.
Despite such advances, Syria's security and intelligence services have drawn clear red lines around Bashar's drive to expand public Internet access. Syrians still cannot obtain access at home because accounts are given only to state institutions, companies and offices of professionals, businessmen, doctors, etc.
The STE — Syrian telecommunications establishment (Mou'asasat al-Itisalat al-Suriyya) — a government agency, remains the only Internet service provider in the country and there are no plans to permit privatization of the industry. This ensures not only that revenue deriving from Internet services goes directly to the state, but also preserves the regime's capability to monitor and intercept Internet communication. Both are relatively easy from a technological perspective and the equipment required is not expensive.
STE officials can easily monitor unencrypted e-mail correspondence and other online activity by anyone who connects to the Internet via the state ISP. If a user is already under suspicion by the STE, officials can simply open and read all email sent and received by that individual. Reading through the e-mail correspondence of all users is impractical, however, so the authorities must rely upon an automated system of detecting potentially subversive correspondence.
For example, it is relatively simple to check the volume of all correspondence going through the state ISP for suspicious keyword strings (such as the words "Assad" and "dictator" in close proximity). E-mail messages to and from dissidents or human rights groups abroad can be tagged for inspection by checking sender/recipient addresses against a list of suspicious contacts. It is also possible to track which web sites a user has visited.
Of course, Syrians can bypass the STE by dialing service providers in Lebanon, but the government has declared this to be illegal and those who are caught risk (at a minimum) a heavy fine and the disconnection of their phone line. Surveillance of such connections is still possible, but only if the STE taps the phone line to intercept data streams as they are sent and received by the user.
One of the reasons that the Syrian regime is tightly regulating Internet cafes and other access centers is that these surveillance techniques can only identify which computer terminal is receiving or sending information, not the person at the keyboard. As a result, institutions offering Internet access to multiple users are required to keep meticulous records.
Censorship of Internet communication is achieved by similar means. The STE can easily stop the receipt of e-mail from particular destinations and block access to web sites and online services that are deemed subversive to the state.
Not surprisingly, the STE has blocked access to a variety of sites deemed to be politically subversive (users receive a message on their screens saying that access to the site has been "denied"). It appears that all sites with Israeli domains (.il) are banned, as well as many Israeli sites using American domains (like the Jerusalem Post). In addition, well-known Syrian opposition sites, such as the London-based Syrian human rights committee, are blocked.
The Washington Times website was blocked a few months ago after it published an unfavorable article about the Syrian regime. However, a reliable source in Damascus told MEIB that the block has been lifted.
The STE has made an effort to block pornographic sites as well. Originally, this was done by using a proxy that forbids all sites that have the word "sex" in the title (which, as one Syrian user told MEIB, left a great many pornographic sites freely accessible). Government censors are apparently still using the same method, but have expanded their list of illicit keywords.
Virtually all free web-based e-mail sites, such as Hotmail and Yahoo, have also been prohibited by the STE because they compete with e-mail subscriptions offered by the government (Excite is one of the few that have not been blocked so far, reportedly because several important figures have Excite e-mail accounts).
This alone has severely impeded the number of Internet users. In other Arab countries, free e-mail sites are extremely popular among those who cannot afford regular Internet subscriptions or do not own computers (anyone with minimal computer skills can go to an Internet cafe or library and set up an account).
As Syrians become more Internet savvy, however, they will increasingly find ways of circumventing government monitors, for technological advances in privacy protection are beginning to rapidly outpace improvements in surveillance technology. There are already many freely available Internet privacy tools using encryption, anonymous re-mailing, and other methods that permit users to obstruct surveillance of their email and navigate the Internet anonymously.
A number of major sites that offer free downloads of privacy software (such as Besilent.com) have been blocked by the Syrian authorities. However, it is not difficult for people to have friends outside the country send them such software privacy software via email. Ultimately, the Syrian regime will find it necessary to expend increasing financial and human resources in order to contravene privacy technology that users can obtain for free. — (Middle East Intelligence Bulletin )
by Gary C. Gambill
© 2000 Mena Report (www.menareport.com )