According to Sada Souria, Syrian Telecom Minister, Imad Saboni, said in a recent lecture at Tishreen University that he personally believes that “effectively raising awareness of the dangers of the internet is the answer, not blocking websites.” Saboni alluded to the ban on GPS devices in Syria that was reversed lately after being in effect for so long. He said that GPS is finally allowed after endless controversy and that it’s now actually used on Civic Administration motor-vehicles. Of course the Minister did not miss the opportunity to launch in ill-informed statement saying that all countries block websites. While that might apply to a few dozen countries, the vast majority of the world does not censor the internet.
The latest statements reflect a conflict between the old guard and more pragmatic officials who see that the censorship policy simply does not work, that the pros of allowing new technologies has a greater positive impact on development than any imagined negative effects that might have on the stability of the political system in the country. It’s worth mentioning that in the early days of internet in Syria you had to have a police or intelligence officer look over your shoulder while you surfed the web at Al Assad Library in the heart of Damascus. Before that, satellite TV was banned as well. I remember laughing when my high school history teacher told us that radios were banned in Yemen for fear of foreign influence. Well, I’m not laughing now.
The Minister was clear that what he said was his own personal views, and that the current policies are in effect because it’s perceived that the internet is more of a danger than phone and mobile networks. I don’t want to read much into what he said, but there are hints of a change of policy that might be coming, just like with every other technology that was blocked partially or fully in the country.
Syria currently blocks dozens of websites including some major blogging platforms and social networks, along with humanitarian and political websites. However, circumvention has become common knowledge for a large swath of the tech savvy youth and thus is available to a majority of users. The government is aware of this, but the sporadic nature of online censorship means that very few websites were ever unlocked in Syria due to having too many parties involved in the process. Will other websites soon be free just like Wikipedia Arabic that was blocked for a while and then unblocked? One can only hope.