Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Young People Find Ways Round Internet Blocks

Young, technologically-minded Syrians say they continue to access banned websites despite increasing attempts by their government to block sites deemed undesirable.

The government last week shut down public access to Wikipedia Arabic, adding the resource to a long list of sites officially banned in Syria.

Most of the banned sites are political, such as, the website of the opposition Damascus Declaration, or Levant News, a London-based news site on Syria run by the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that is proscribed in the country.

However, the authorities have also banned sites popular with young people worldwide, such as YouTube and the social networking website Facebook, which was taken offline in November.

In the past, the government has re-opened access to some sites that it had earlier blocked, such as Yahoo Mail and Hotmail, but observers say things are getting worse, and more and more sites have been banned over the past two years.

The government has ordered internet cafes to register customers and take ID from them. Meanwhile, private internet connections are becoming more costly.

Young Syrians appear undeterred by the obstacles placed in their way.

"Over time, we have learned how to get over the ban,” said Ahmad, a 24-year-old law student from the outskirts of Damascus.

Young Syrians spend hours finding proxy sites through which they can look at blocked websites, and use sophisticated “anonymity software” which prevents those monitoring internet usage from identifying who is visiting which sites. They say the authorities are hot on their heels, finding and closing down the proxy sites, so they have to be ready to move onto a new one at short notice.

One 25-year-old who accesses blocked sites through his home internet connection calls it “a game of cat and mouse”.

The programmes used to switch proxies sometimes bring the already slow internet connections nearly to a complete stop. Waiting for pages to load can be “a bit boring”, he said, adding “we have no other choice”.

"Do you think I can live without Facebook, for example?” he said with a grin. “It's my friends, my discussion, my fun.”

According to the Alexa website, which tracks the most frequently visited sites by country, several banned sites such as Facebook, Blogger, YouTube and the blogs on Maktoob – still get the highest traffic in Syria.

The blocks imposed on Facebook and Wikipedia Arabic caused some bafflement, as there seemed to be no rhyme or reason behind the decisions. Wikipedia is still accessible in English and French.

"I don’t understand what standards they use to ban websites,” Ahmed said. “What’s the problem with Wikipedia? It seems odd.”

The independent Al-Nazaha website, which has been blocked since October 2007, sued the communications ministry in November in a bid to get the decision overturned. During the court case, the ministry admitted that the military security service had issued the order to ban the site.

A Damascus-based lawyer said that while accessing banned websites is technically illegal, the penalties for doing so have never been defined and investigations are rare.

He said the bans “are more about spreading a sense of fear more than actually causing problems”.

Because the government can monitor web surfing through home internet connections, many Syrians have used internet cafes to browse banned sites. That has become less popular following the government directive last year requiring internet cafes to take ID from customers.

One young man recalled how he used to tell café owners that he left his identity card at home, but said he stopped trying this ploy after learning that some customers had been arrested for accessing blocked websites.

Website blocking by government is not unique to one country, and Syrians often rely on international chatrooms and blogs to figure out how to access blocked sites.

"What I really like about the internet is how people exchange experiences,” said a 23-year-old student at the University of Damascus. “China is a faraway country and we don’t know the language. But we benefit from some of the programmes that people have developed there to overcome blocks.”

She said Syrians used to rely on Iranian programmes before they found the Chinese software.

“They don’t know us, and they don’t know we use their inventions,” she said. “But we are grateful to them."

(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists based in the country.)

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