Were Patrick Henry alive today, his famous quotation would probably go something like this: “Give me an Internet connection, or give me death!” The ability to communicate with people across the Earth is not only possible, it’s expected, in the same way we expect oxygen to flow into our lungs.
For some of us, anyway. For others the Internet is a fleeting thing, an ephemeral entity that can be – and has been – taken away at a moment’s notice. This is the case in Syria today, where the government has decided to take the entire country offline. And by offline I don’t mean that it’s offline in the same way that China can ignite the Great Firewall, I mean that there is no way for data to get in or out of the country.
“There’s literally not been a single request from a Syrian IP address” since the country was taken offline, Matthew Prince, CEO of Internet infrastructure company CloudFlare, says.
Syria has just gone dark. Without even a pin-hole of light.
Prince – and the rest of the world – has had to watch these sort of attacks before, but he’s never seen one quite so effective. During the Arab Spring and the Egyptian government’s attempt to cut access to the Internet, the company kept a close eye on the goings-on, and Prince says that there was still a “trickle” of requests originating from Egyptian IP addresses.
CloudFlare, which protects and hastens Internet connections around the world, has been closely following the situation in Syria and combed its records to find the last four sites Syrians visited before their connections were severed. The answer? A photo-sharing service, a social network, a news site, and a pornographic website – exactly the type of sites that would be visited anywhere else on the globe. Syrian citizens, or the majority of them, anyway, weren’t looking through democratic manifestos or plotting an attack, they were simply browsing the Web.
Blame for the outage has been passed between the Syrian government, the rebel forces, and just-plain dumb luck in the form of a malfunction in the country’s infrastructure. Prince dismisses the idea that the rebel forces could be responsible for the outage, as that would have required a simultaneous attack on the four cables providing Internet access to the country. Given the fact that three of those cables are in the sea and the other passes through Turkey, this seems unlikely. All four lines malfunctioning at once is also unlikely, leaving just one suspect: The Syrian government.
A CloudFlare engineer captured the shut-down in the video below. If you want to know what it looks like when a country is thrust out of the Information Age, you now have your answer.
When I ask if there were any way for someone to sneak data in or out of the country, Prince says that, short of satellite access, short-wave radio signals, or sitting on the border and using another country’s connectivity, the answer is no. “In this case, it’s like [the Syrian government] not only severed all the bridges,” he says, “But they caused all the maps that even told people how to get to the bridges to disappear.”
In other words: Until the Syrian government – or whoever severed the connection – feels the time is right, Syrians will be without a way to communicate with the outside world. Those who manage to send short-wave radio signals may be able to broadcast their messages, but the technology would be like handing a megaphone to a deaf man. He may be able to yell and scream and call for help, but there is no way to answer his cries.
“What this effectively is is a large DDoS attack that appears to have been launched by the leading authorities in Syria to silence and cut off some information from everyone else in the country,” Prince says. “How [CloudFlare] fits into this is that we’re trying everything we can think of to make sure that this doesn’t happen. This is a DDoS attack against a population that we couldn’t stop.”
The bastardization of Henry’s famous line was no mistake. For Prince, and for many others who are keeping an eye on the situation in Syria, an Internet connection is Liberty. The ability to transmit information, to be heard and to hear, is an expression of freedom. Severing that connection is akin to binding and gagging Liberty herself.