Unblocking Syria’s social media

Some wonder if Syria’s decision to allow access to facebook and blog sites is just a new way to track activists.

syria internet
Free access to social networking sites is different from free expression, says Jillian York [Reuters]

Until recently, Tunisia held the worst record for Internet filtering in the Arab world, blocking everything from political opposition to video-sharing sites. 

But along with Tunisia’s revolt came increased Internet freedom: The interim government now blocks far fewer sites, mainly those considered “obscene”, and Internet users attempting to access such sites now encounter a block page rather than a blank one, demonstrating an increased degree of transparency.

Syria, formerly the runner-up to Tunisia, appears to be taking a similar turn. On Wednesday, Syrian authorities granted access to Facebook, Blogspot, and YouTube, and for the first time since 2007, users of those sites could get to the social networking sites freely, without use of a proxy.

The Internet in Syria has long been censored. Frequently named an “enemy of the Internet” by watchdog group Reporters Sans Frontières, the country blocks not only social media sites but political opposition, sites with human rights information, Kurdish sites, anonymisers, and the website of the banned Muslim Brotherhood.

Tech-savvy Syrian Internet users utilize VPN services, web-based proxies and other tools to circumvent the blocks, though the export of those tools from the United States is also prohibited without a license from Treasury and Commerce departments, due to long-standing sanctions.

Western sanctions

The sanctions on the country also affect Syrian censorship, as US companies like Google are prohibited from marketing their products within the country. Syrians cannot download tools like Google Chrome and Google Earth, nor can they buy licensed versions of Microsoft and other software. 

Though the unblocking is only a small step–Syrians have reported that the keywords “facebook” and “proxy” are still blocked on some Internet Service Providers (ISPs), as are Amazon.com and the Arabic version of Wikipedia–it may be a step in the right direction for a regime that is trying to garner further popular support in light of the recent events in the region.

The move could also curry favor for Syria in Washington. In 2010, the State Department sent a delegation of executives from major US tech firms–most of which are constrained by US export control policy from doing business in Syria–to meet with the Syrian president and his cabinet.

The meeting was focused on a number of issues, including intellectual property, but undoubtedly also involved talk of Internet freedom.

Of course, free access to these networks is not without danger: Though the average Syrian user may have little cause for concern, the newfound freedom could pose risks to activists.

Despite promised reforms from President Bashar al-Assad, Syria remains a repressive political climate.  Though the Syrian constitution guarantees freedom of expression, the country’s emergency law–in place since 1962–strips citizens of most constitutional protections.

While the ban on Blogspot was still in place, no fewer than four bloggers using the service were arrested for content published on Blogspot blogs, including 19-year-old Tal al Mallouhi, charged with espionage in December 2010 for her writings on Palestine and local affairs. 

Access versus expression

Activists should remember that free access does not mean freedom of expression. Social media tools have been used for surveillance in a number of countries, and are easily exploited.

In Tunisia, reports that the government had phished user passwords for Facebook and Gmail emerged in December, while in the United States, Facebook has been used by creditors to track down people with outstanding debt. 

Though phishing may be uncommon, and can be prevented by using HTTPS to connect to Facebook (a feature just rolled out to all users), activists who accept friend requests from people they don’t know personally are taking a risk. Creating a profile is an easy process, and Facebook’s platform allows anyone to add any individual as a friend, unless they’ve adjusted their security settings to avoid it.

Some Syrian Facebook users have speculated that the move could make it easier for the government to monitor their usage of the site.  For its part, the State Department has commented on the concern as well, with Secretary of State Clinton’s Senior Advisor for Innovation Alec Ross tweeting: “Welcome positive move on Facebook & YouTube in #Syria but concerned that freedom puts users at risk absent freedom of expression&association.”

Others, such as Mazen Darwish, from the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression, see the move as a positive step. Speaking to the Guardian, Darwish stated that: “After what happened on the 4th and the 5th, the authorities now know that the Syrian people are not the enemy.”

Jillian York is a writer, blogger, and activist based in Boston. She works at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Centre for Internet & Society and is involved with Global Voices Online.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.