As rebel forces advance in Syria’s north and east and prepare to contest regime forces for control of Damascus, the internet went dark in Syria last week. The strategic importance of cutting communication lines is obvious and it suggests a certain desperation on the part of Assad’s government. While much of the discussion about U.S. options in Syria have lately focused on larger strategic considerations involving preparations for the possible use of WMD by Syria, it’s important to note the singular contribution the U.S. made last week during the internet outage. As CNN reports, the U.S. provided direct assistance to keep the lines of communication open:
More than 90% of the Internet access in Syria was shut down on Thursday, according to the Internet monitoring group Renesys. It was not clear who was behind the latest event, but the government has intermittently cut off Internet access several times in the past two years. Opposition activists often transmit updates about the civil war in reports and images on the Web. Syria has shut down the Internet in the past, said U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford. Ford added that the United States has given “a thousand pieces of non-lethal equipment — largely communications gear” to help opposition activists get around blocks to the Internet. [...] A lot of the pictures that you see on the nightly news are from communication equipment that we supply to very brave and very dedicated opposition activists inside Syria,” Ford said. “We have provided over a thousand pieces of non-lethal equipment — largely communications gear to help them get around the restrictions on the Internet that the Syrian government imposes.”
This is but one example of how the U.S. is attempting to counter a rising tide of internet censorship. At at an ongoing U.N.-sponsored international conference devoted to internet governance, the U.S. this week tried again to maintain the the current structure of the internet, an internet free of state-sponsored censorship:
Nations gathered in Dubai to discuss revising the world’s telecommunications regulations have reacted coolly to a proposal, put forward by the United States and Canada, to limit the scope of deliberations. American negotiators had proposed that this week’s deliberations at the World Conference on International Telecommunications be limited to telecommunications, excluding online service providers such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter. But Reuters reports that the proposal was not immediately accepted by other nations. US ambassador Terry Kramer told Reuters that the US had pushed for quick ratification of the US/Canadian proposal to avoid entangling online services in the negotiations. But the other nations chose to put the proposal on hold. It’s expected to come up again on Friday. The debate over the future of Internet governance and what role, if any, the International Telecommunications Union should play in it has largely pitted the United States—which hosts many of the Internet’s leading companies and has relatively strong constitutional protections for free speech—against authoritarian regimes such as China and Russia who see the conference as an opportunity to legitimize government censorship and surveillance.
There was a time when the free and open internet was envisioned as a tool for human rights activists to use to expose abuses, to defend victims, and push back against tyranny and oppression. Sadly, the experience of the last few years has shown that the oppressive governments that comprise the usual suspects of human rights abusers are more than capable of using (or misusing) the internet for their own ends. And it’s not just the usual suspects we need worry about, as CFR Fellow Joshua Kurlantzick points out, countries that we would consider to be democratic and free are now being tempted by the extraordinary level of control and surveillance that the internet allows. Even prestigious international bodies (like the Nobel Prize Award Committee) that serve as guardians of established norms and values grant awards to those whose views of censorship are at odds with those values.
It is too soon to tell how this battle for the control of the internet will turn out, but it’s clear that battle-lines have been drawn between those who defend the free and open architecture of the internet as we know it and those bent on using the internet as a tool of oppression. While its encouraging that the founders of the internet have set a clear vision of a free internet and they have a strong ally in the United States, there are powerful interests arrayed on the other side. The future of the internet is far from certain.