Syria’s Internet Disruption

On Thursday morning the Syrian internet went dark. This has several commentators wondering how easy could it be to shut down the internet. Apparently, in Syria, where there’s one major gateway which happens to be owned by the country, pretty easy.

I’m more interested in the other question, the one we asked after similar internet shutdowns in Egypt and Libya. Namely “will it matter”?

I suspect that it will not. There were revolutions and civil wars before there was Twitter and Facebook. It’s hard to imagine that were social media to have been around at the fall of the Soviet Empire there would have been more civil wars than we had. It’s possible of course. We can’t go back in time and relive the end of Communism with today’s internet.

Of course, a world that never had the internet is a different place than a world that had it and then lost. Certainly some greater than zero number of communications will be halted, rallies delayed, arms gone untraded etc. But I don’t think this will amount to more than just a minor hiccup for the rebels. And whatever hindrance it delivers to them, will also be delivered to some greater than zero number of government backers–not to mention all the unaffiliated citizens that want nothing more from the internet than to watch funny cat videos (or whatever the Syrian equivalent is).

Moreover, how many people in Syria are even on the internet? Not many. Its hard to imagine that too many more people joined the ranks of netizenry since the start of the rebel uprising. In 2010, nearly 4 million Syrians had access to the internet. A year later that number had only grown by about half a million. Assuming another half million people have joined since 2011, that puts nearly 5 million internet users…in a nation of just over 20 million, that’s not quite 25% internet penetration.

Although the Syrian shutdown is almost certainly more effective than the Egyptian one, my assumption is that, like its Arab Spring predecessors, it won’t amount to more than a minor bump for opposition and a temporary one.

As a matter of fact, if it was the Syrian government’s desire to upset the internet in order to inconvenience the rebels, then it would have been better to leave the internet up and monitor the communications thereon, because whatever the rebels replace the internet with, it will be harder, not easier, for the beleaguered government to track and intercept those communications.

Photo credit: Slate (“Syria’s Internet Just Went Entirely Dark” 11/29/12)