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Are Syria's Internet Outages Increasing in Frequency?

BY Jessica McKenzie | Wednesday, May 15 2013

Visualization of the most recent power outage in Syria, courtesy of Arbor Networks

At 3:30 Wednesday morning, Jim Cowie received an automated text message: Syria's Internet was down, again. The eight hour outage today was the second Internet blackout in Syria since the start of May, and the fourth since last November. Many have speculated the blackouts are a result of deliberate government interference, but there is no consensus as to why and indeed no concrete evidence one way or the other.

Cowie is the Chief Technology Officer and co-founder of Renesys, an Internet monitoring firm that keeps constant tabs on the global Internet system, which is how he came to be alerted first thing this morning to the Syria outage. In a recent blog post he observed “the depressing sameness” of each Syrian Internet outage, “as if a switch had been thrown.” During our phone call earlier today he confirmed that the outage this morning continued that pattern.

An AllThingsD article summarizes some of the not-so-outlandish conspiracy theories being thrown around to explain the outages: “The most common one appears to be that the 20-hour outage [earlier this May] gave government officials time to install some kind of new surveillance gear on the networks. The other is that it was intended to disrupt the ability of rebel groups fighting against the regime to communicate during a specific time window.”

A BBC journalist suggestively tweeted that the outage in early May was at the same time as the Baniyas massacre.

The same AllThingsD article points to two tweets that seem to have warned Syrians – in April – about an Internet blackout the first week of May. This supports the assertion that the government is the cause of the Internet outages, and not a faulty optic cable, as claimed by Syria's Minister of Communications and Technology earlier this month.

Cowie pointed out that, without talking to a computer technician on site in Syria, we cannot know whether the outages are a result of human interference or technical failure – the timing and the length of the outages could support either theory. All connections are routed through one building in Damascus, so it is possible for one failure (intentional or not) to take out the entire system.

However, four different optic cables are routed through that building, and for all of them to suffer damage, and at the same time, makes the Syrian government's case for a damaged optic cable pretty darn weak.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.