Internet censorship in Syria & how to bypass restrictions

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Since 2011, Syria has been torn apart by civil war. This has been savagely fought on many fronts by a variety of heavily armed groups. Almost all regional powers have managed to get themselves involved on one side or another, as have Russia and the United States.

As of December 2018, the conflict has left more than 500,000 people dead or missing, with another million injured. Twelve million people, more than half Syria population, have been displaced since 2012.

As of early April 2019, hostilities appear to have stabilized following the defeat of Islamic State brutal caliphate. Ongoing violence around other rebel strongholds shows no sign of ending, but the Russian-backed Syrian Government under President Bashar al-Assad has now regained control over the majority of territory in the country.

The war has left many areas of Syria without infrastructure, although the spread of mobile internet allows some 32 percent of the remaining population to access the internet. Many regional and Lebanese media websites are blocked, but the biggest threat to online freedom comes from intimidation and violence towards anyone who posts on a wide range of sensitive subjects.

Unsurprisingly, the result is an acute level of self-censorship. Not only do most Syrians avoid discussing sensitive topics online, but few dare even to access websites which are officially blocked by the Syrian government.

Political Overview

The Assad government overseas one of the most repressive regimes in the world. Human rights abuses are common, political opposition illegal, and freedom of speech savagely suppressed. Corruption at all levels of government is endemic, disappearances and spurious military trials, a daily occurrence, and use of torture routine.

Life in rebel-controlled areas is even worse. These are war zones operating under siege conditions, and which are routinely denied access to humanitarian aid. Discussing the internet privacy and freedom situation under such conditions is probably as meaningless as it is impossible.

We will, therefore, confine ourselves in this article to discussing to the situation in areas under government control.

President Assad was elected for a third term in 2014 with a claimed 88.7 percent of the vote. In April 2016 elections for the 250-seat People Council, the Ba\u2019ath Party, which has ruled Syria since the 1960s, won 200 seats. The others were won by nominal independents, many (if not most) of whom are in reality loyal to the government. Almost no international observers consider any of these election results to be legitimate.

Women in principle have equal political rights, they hold 13 percent of seats in the legislature, and hold some senior positions in government. These figures do not reflect the more common experience of women in Syria, but heavy state repression and the existence of many hostile armed groups mean that few men enjoy much in the way of political autonomy either.

By law, LGBT relationships are considered punishable with up to three years in prison.

Government Surveillance

The Freedom on the Net 2018 report states that Syria remains one of the most dangerous places to use the internet in the world. It also notes that surveillance is rampant on domestic ISPs, which are tightly aligned with government security forces.

Website and other online platform owners are required to log all visitor information, which is handed over to the government. If failure to comply with this is deemed to be deliberate, then owners can face stiff fines and up to three years in jail.

Malware attacks targeted against activists (both domestic and abroad) are common, and the use of internet cafes is closely monitored.

Registration is required to buy a phone or SIM card, but some Syrians have found ways to achieve a degree of anonymity on the internet. In areas near Syria borders, it is often possible to connect to mobile networks operated by Turkish or Lebanese ISPs.

There has also been a rise in people using phones and SIM cards registered to dead friends and relatives in order to hide their true identity while online.

Censorship

As of 30 August 2018, more than 90,000 people have been forcibly disappeared in Syria. Most of them at the hands of the Syrian government. Hundreds of bloggers and citizen journalists have been arrested for content posted online, with beating, torture, and even death once in state custody common. There are also confirmed cases of digital activities being formally executed by the regime.

Once (if!) released from custody, activists and bloggers are often pressured to provide passwords for all their online accounts. Self-censorship out of sheer fear for their lives, then, is undoubtedly the primary mechanism limiting what people say or do online (or, indeed, in real life).

The Syrian government nevertheless performs extensive technical censorship of internet content. Pretty much any website which criticizes the regime cultural, social, or economic policies, or senior party members, or which attempts to expose official corruption is blocked.

Although blocked for many years before the war, Facebook has been available in Syria since 2011. YouTube, Twitter, and other social media platforms are also available and very popular.

Anti-censorship tools such as VPNs are blocked, with the Syrian government deploying deep packet inspection techniques capable of detecting the use of the OpenVPN and IPSec VPN protocols. For this reason, we do not recommend their use within the country at present.

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We have seen little to no reports that the Syrian government has made any attempt to curb copyright infringement within the country, and at present copyright holders are unlikely to take action against Syrian offenders.

Broadband connections remain fairly rare and mobile data prices are high, which may serve to limit appetite for pirated content. Despite this, YouTube is one of the three most visited websites in the country, so there is clearly a desire to watch streamed entertainment. It is our guess that copyright piracy is not uncommon, at least in more stable areas.