Last week saw one of the greatest demonstrations of the power of the Internet, and the strength behind the threats it faces, of all time.
From the beginning of the Arab Spring uprisings, the Internet has been an invaluable tool in toppling the dictators who, once they lost their control over information, lost control of their countries.
Facebook and Twitter became central means of coordination among demonstrators, with information, encouragement and warnings. YouTube became a way for the entire world to see up close the brutality they were fighting to overcome.
In Syria, by far the most violent and interminable of the uprisings, last week, the rebels/freedom fighters/terrorists — depending on who you ask — made significant advances against the reigning Assad government, despite being the target of heavy artillery fire and regular air raids.
They reportedly took several military bases near the capital of Damascus and were close to taking the Damascus airport, which had canceled all flights last Thursday.
And the Internet helped make those victories possible.
Realizing this, the Syrian government on Thursday shut Syria off from the rest of the world, closing down every Internet and cellphone connection in the country.
The government blamed the rebels. Though analysts with Renesys said that would be quite unlikely, unless rebels had managed to sever four separate ground lines into the country. Plus the blackout appeared to be a deliberate server misconfiguration to just make the rest of the world’s Internet forget where Syrian websites were.
But the rebels had anticipated this blackout. According to an article in Friday’s New York Times, the Syrian opposition for months has been importing equipment for satellite Internet connections, that aren’t affected by blackouts.
Another article from back in June in Time magazine, “Hillary’s Little Startup: How the U.S. is Using Technology to Aid Syria’s Rebels,” explained how the U.S. State Department has spent millions of dollars training people all over the world in how to get around the prying eyes of the totalitarian governments they live under. The program was originally created to help Chinese christians organize.
The New York Times article mentions that the satellite connections do help the rebels maintain communication, and an awareness of where and how government troops are moving, but it puts those same rebels at risk. The satellite connections can be tracked more easily. And the Syrian government has also been spreading viruses among insurgents that allow the government to track anything the computer does, and anything anyone types into it.
Just like how the tanks and machine guns of World War I revolutionized how war was fought more than 100 years ago, the Internet has changed it in the 21st, creating a whole new battlefield that is arguably more important than the physical one, informing when and shaping where the old-fashioned chemical-energy weapons are deployed.
The Internet came back on Saturday afternoon, Syrian time. On the same day, according to a Time magazine report, “Syrian troops backed by helicopter gunships clashed with rebels as government forces pushed a major offensive on villages and towns near the capital’s international airport,” where the rebels had made advances just prior to the blackout.
A lot of people might think that the Internet is just a great way to waste all your time, but for thousands of Syrians and millions of people across the planet who are fighting for their rights of inquiry and expression, fighting, like some of our ancestors 250 years ago, to have a say in how they are ruled, the Internet is a matter of life and death.
(Zach White is a reporter with the Havre Daily News.)