Guardian’s Ian Black on Syria: Beware of eyecatching reforms
After reading the first tweets about the unblocking of social networking sites for Internet users in Syria, I knew that there must be a catch somewhere. Bashar Al-Assad hasn’t exactly shown us his generous side yet.
It didn’t take long for me to realise what was going on. At exactly the same time as news emerged of the debarring, I received dozens of emails from Barada TV viewers who were all saying that they could no longer search for “proxy” in their search engines or use “https” to enter websites such as Facebook. They also said that any url address with the word “proxy” would return an error page.
It became apparent that a mukhabarat trap was being sprung. What they wanted was for young Syrians to access social networking sites without the use of proxy severs, hence be easier to track and identify. Proxies being much harder to use, Internet users would simply be more guarded when accessing Facebook or YouTube. The result will be the worst form of censorship: self-censorship.
I then became infuriated with the way that some were trying to spin the story in favour of the regime which had blocked these websites in the first place. Let’s not forget that we are talking about only three websites out of a hundred or so which are still blocked. As a concession, its a very small one, long overdue and grossly insufficient.
Censorship by proxyEgypt’s uprising is inspiring hope for change across the Arab world, but there are clearly dangers of exaggerated expectations – and of misinterpreting limited if eyecatching reforms. Take the case of Syria, where authorities this week reportedly eased restrictions on social networking websites such as Facebook and YouTube. Official confirmation is not possible because the government does not comment on its internet restrictions, but web users have reported (anonymously) that the sites were accessible for the first time in years without having to use proxy servers.Past regime behaviour certainly merits a healthy dose of scepticism and the catch behind this “concession” is that it may mean less freedom. Syrian users have now been blocked from entering the word “proxy” in any search engine and any page with the word “proxy” in the URL address will not open. Syrians, in short, have lost internet anonymity. “Under the guise of lifting restrictions on the internet, the authorities have in fact tightened their control,” warns Malik al-Abdeh of London-based Barada TV. “No sane internet user will enter the now unblocked Facebook and visit a page that contains criticisms of the regime, or, worse still, a page that organises demonstrations as the Egyptians and Tunisians have done. The irony is that Syrian internet users are actually better off under the old system. Unblocking Facebook while cracking down on proxies and https, and maintaining the same censorship apparatus run by the secret police, is totally meaningless.” Not much sign, then, of a revival of the short-lived Damascus spring of Bashar al-Assad’s early days.
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