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Electronic “Asylum” for the Internetless

BY Rebecca Chao | Monday, July 8 2013

(image: Freedom House/flickr)

While there is no on-off switch for the Internet in Syria, it only takes a few phone calls to turn it off. In the U.S. we can choose from thousands of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to get connected but in Syria, where the government allegedly shut down connectivity several times in recent months, there are only around 14 ISPs, which are also government-controlled.

Obama’s former cyber security adviser, Chris Finan, recently proposed the idea of a “digital ‘safe haven’” in a New York Times op-ed, likening it to a “physical safe havens for refugees.” There are currently long-distance Wi-Fi technologies that can transmit signals of up to 60 miles that are being used in countries like India, Panama, Vietnam and South Africa to connect citizens in rural areas. In Syria, Finan proposes using very targeted long range Wi-Fi, giving only specific rebel and opposition groups access.

After the initial long range Wi-Fi is set up, the connection can be dispersed via traditional cables, wire and routers. Finan writes, “This would enable them to reach deeper into the country, giving broad sections of the Syrian populace Internet access.” The network would be monitored by the U.S., allowing only “moderate opposition elements” to use the network and ensure there is no government interference. He argues that the new U.S. Army Cyber Command already has this capacity. The army could operate remotely without needing to physically set-up in Syria as well as train those on the ground on how to protect themselves from losing access to the Internet.

ABOVE: A video shows the gradual loss of Syria's Internet connectivity (CloudFlare/Vimeo)

Political considerations aside, there are several logistical issues that would prevent the long distance Wi-Fi setup. First is the 60-mile limit. The U.S. may not have to put boots on the ground in Syria but it has to set up camp somewhere close by. In an experiment, a team of technologists, scientists, and engineers from the U.S., Latin American and Italy were able to successfully create a long distance Wi-Fi network of 173 miles. However, as they noted in a paper, with extreme long distances, the curvature of the earth may obstruct the Wi-Fi path and connection may only be possible via very high elevations on both ends.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.