The Syrian government has apparently shutdown its telecommunications network, blocking both incoming and outgoing internet traffic and effectively cutting off the nation – and its bloody civil war – from the rest of the world.
The blackout, recorded second-by-second by Cloudflare, the California based web performance and security company, unfolded between 10.26 and 10.29 GMT on Thursday, and at the time of writing, there have been no requests from Syrian IP space.
Registered worldwide, the blackout comes just days before the United Nations begins debate on a controversial plan to allow country-based controls over the internet at the World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai.
Human rights and civil society groups have joined with international labour organisations and global corporations like Google to condemn the plan, warning that authoritarian regimes such as Syria and Saudi Arabia will use UN sanctioned regulations to stymie cyber space and free information flow.
According to the CEO of Cloudflare, Matthew Prince, Syrian internet connections were severed “literally one by one” in just under three minutes.
Speaking with the BBC World Service on Friday, Prince said there are four main lines running in and out of Syria but all are controlled by the state-owned Syrian telecommunications authority.
“[This was] a systematic effort to make sure none of those lines were transmitting any information in or out of the country and today almost 21 hours later we can see no packets running in or out of Syria,” he said.
“There were some allegations that the internet was cut by some form of terrorist activity or activity cutting one of those lines.
“We are highly skeptical that that is actually what happened – it is much more likely that the telecommunications authority that controls all of the routes in and out of Syria actively withdrew what are called BGP routes.”
Prince said that the BGP routes are the lines that connect the Syrian network to the rest of the internet but that when these were withdrawn, “no packets of information”, that is the exchange across the internet, could find its way in or out of the country.
“This is like not just knocking out bridges connecting the rest of the island to the rest of the world but also, wiping out the maps which explained to you where those bridges had existed.”
CloudFlare engineers tracked the withdrawal of services as it happened, noting that Syria has four physical cables that connect it to the rest of the internet.
Three are undersea cables that land in the city of Tartous, Syria. The fourth is an over-land cable through Turkey.
Analysts noted that in order for a whole-country outage, all four of these cables would have had to been cut simultaneously, which is an unlikely scenario.
And according to Cloudflare network engineers, the “systematic way in which routes were withdrawn suggests that this was done through updates in router configurations, not through a physical failure or cable cut.”
Free and fair access
In his blog, Prince said the company does not believe that its role is to take sides in any political conflict.
“However, we do believe it is our mission to build a better internet where everyone can have a voice and access information,” he wrote.
“It is therefore deeply troubling to the CloudFlare team when we see an entire nation cut off from the ability to access and report information.
“Our thoughts are with the Syrian people and we hope connectivity, and peace, will be quickly restored.”
The General Secretary of the ITUC, Sharan Burrow, said none of the governments who are pushing for reform of internet regulations at the conference are regimes “you would want in control of the Net.”
“Big telecommunications corporations have joined with countries including China, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, countries that already impose heavy restrictions on internet freedoms, to put forward proposals for a new treaty at the UN World Conference on International Telecommunications,” she said.
“So far the proposal has flown under the radar, thanks to the secretive nature of the UN’s little known telecommunications arm, the ITU. But its implications – as shown by what is happening in Syria - are so serious that we must act quickly to show the ITU and its member countries that citizens will not stand by while our right to communicate freely is undermined.”
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