Government

Can Syrian Government Starve Rebellion with Information Deprivation?

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Last year, a 75-year-old woman in the former Soviet republic of Georgia hacked through a cable with a shovel while scavenging for scrap metal, inadvertently crippling Internet service in that country and in neighboring Armenia and Azerbaijan. Accidents like this have happened on a smaller scale in the U.S., and the loss of Internet connectivity in the wake of Superstorm Sandy had a paralyzing effect on businesses in New York and elsewhere. But, as Rachel Maddow pointed in the opening segment of her November 29 broadcast, governments are realizing that shutting off the Internet on purpose is a powerful political weapon.

The dictators who fell in the Arab Spring uprisings may have realized too late just how potent the Internet is as a means of mobilizing popular sentiment. This lesson has not been lost on Syria, which yesterday unplugged its Internet completely, effectively isolating its citizens, along with the rebel opposition, from the rest of the world. If held to the standards proposed by International Telecomunications Union General Secretary Hamadoun Touré in his talk at Techonomy 2011, this action by the Syrian government violates an international human right. In his recent article for Techonomy, Gabriel Mizrahi argued that North Korea’s iron grip on Internet access neutralizes popular resistance before it can take seed. Can civic movements, let alone revolutions, survive without the Internet in our networked age? And what are the responsibility of governments and international bodies to enforce global network neutrality and Internet for all?

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  • http://www.gabrielmizrahi.com/ Gabriel

    Great article, Adam. I’m really glad you guys are covering this topic; it’s so important. Hitting the Off Switch has become a major play in the counterrevolutionary playbook, and it raises some important questions.

    To your main one — whether movements can survive without the Internet — the answer increasingly seems to be no. At least not at scale. Repressive governments know this: It was the network effect (technological and emotional, as we discussed in that last piece) and the insurmountable efficiency of social that toppled regimes such as Egypt. Syria is learning big lessons from its neighbors, even if they’re not the lessons we might hope.

    Hope Syria gets back online soon. An already dark nation need not grow darker.

    • sarahharvey23

      I find it encouraging that people and institutions elsewhere are trying to help Syria get its voice back, even without Internet. Google has reactivated it’s Speak2Tweet service to let people disseminate voice messages over Twitter, which was used during Egypt’s protests last year (it allows those with phone connection to leave voicemails which Google will then Tweet). Rachel Maddow reported that the U.S. government has been providing the Syrian rebels with communication tools to get around the Internet blackout. I think we can all agree that everyone deserves to have a voice, which today relies on access to web and mobile technology.