Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

Syrian Internet and Phone Blackout Enters Second Day

The Internet shutdown in the war-torn nation of Syria has entered its second day. Government media reports there are blaming a “fault in fiber optic cables,” according to a report from Al-Jazeera, the Dubai-based news organization that covers the Middle East.

The reports from SANA, the official Syrian government news agency, are also confirming reports I picked up last night via Twitter that domestic phone service within Syria is also down.

SANA’s explanation doesn’t pass the smell test, mainly because it would require the simultaneous failure of four separate fiber optic cables that bring bandwidth into the country. And there would have been the additional reports of service problems in countries that share the same cables. According to Google’s Transparency report, there are no such failures in Turkey, or Lebanon, or Cyprus, or Jordan.

Renesys, the U.S.-based research firm that tracks the health of Internet infrastructure around the world, shared via Twitter a map showing the routes of three undersea cables that service Syria. (Click the map to make it bigger.)

As we on the outside of all this speculate on reasons why the government would shut off Internet access, I have a few ideas. One thing I noticed as I drilled down into Google’s Transparency report for Syria was what to my eye appears to be an unusual rise in traffic from Syria to YouTube relatively early in the day. See the image below and look at the spike that occurs on May 7.

I’m just speculating here, but there have been reports of a significant massacre of at least 62 civilians by a pro-Assad paramilitary force in the coastal city of Banias on May 3 and May 4. I’ve noticed that there are several very grisly videos circulating on YouTube concerning this. (I’ve seen one that nearly made me sick, so I won’t show them to you, but you can find them yourself.)

Perhaps the YouTube-related spike I noticed might coincide with increased interest inside Syria in these YouTube videos, and that the Assad government may find them enough of a threat that it would rather shut down the Internet while trying to find a way to block them or maybe try to scrub them.

There would also be a benefit for the government side in disrupting communications capabilities of the rebel fighters, in order to keep them on the back foot. Meanwhile, any new offensives that the pro-Assad camp might have been planning can go on, and no one on the other side can share any new videos or other information about them with the outside world.

It bears repeating that the civil war in Syria has gone on for two years, and that somewhere between 70,000 and 75,000 people have died in it, most of them civilians.

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First the NSA came for, well, jeez pretty much everybody’s data at this point, and I said nothing because wait how does this joke work

— Parker Higgins via Twitter