Did The Assad Regime Just Kill The Internet In Syria?

Traffic to Google Services in Syria on May 15th, 2013

For the second time in less than two weeks, Syria has disappeared from the internet, just as opposition forces attacked the main prison in Aleppo in an attempt to free hundreds of regime opponents. The outage started around 10:00 am local time with traffic disappearing and Syrian government websites including the state news agency SANA also going down.

A Syrian communications department official speaking on the condition of anonymity to the Associated Press claimed the outage was the result of a an internet cable cut in a Damascus suburb and would take around four hours to restore. However, internet outages in Syria have historically come at tactically significant times for the regime — for example when it was rumored that government forces were mixing chemical weapons last November or during a rare public address by Assad in January.

Experts say the outage resembles the one that occurred around this time last week, with James Cowe, chief technology officer at internet research firm Renesys telling the AP:

It looks like a replay of what happened on the seventh and eighth […] It’s entirely consistent with a technical fault at a central facility; it’s also completely consistent with a decision to use an Internet kill switch.

Other regimes facing upheaval have shut down the internet using a “kill switch” before to stunt the organizing ability of opposition forces — most notably Egyptian revolution, where 20 million users were essentially cut off from the global Internet by the Mubarak government. If the Assad regime intentionally took down the internet, it likely did so to make it more difficult for opposition groups to communicate within their organizations and share information about regime actions with the outside world.

While Syrian opposition leaders have relied on the internet for a number of communication needs, the frequency of internet outages and regime surveillance has forced them to build up alternative communications channels — sometimes with technological help from the U.S, which as of last November “provided some 2,000 communications kits, pieces of equipment” to opposition forces since the civil war broke out.