The Corner

Syria Shuts Down Cell Service, Internet, Flights

According to Internet-intelligence company Renesys, the Internet has been shut down throughout Syria, while the AP has learned that cell service is off in at least parts of the country. Further, Al Jazeera reports that rebels are advancing along the main road to Damascus’s airport and are within a couple kilometers, prompting the airport to halt all commercial flights.

On the topic of the Internet shut-down, there’s actually an interesting hypothesis about this that I explored last year

[A] paper [by Navid Hassanpour, a political-science Ph.D. student at Yale] hypothesizes that less social media access catalyzes more effective cooperation and face-to-face interactions, from which revolutions draw strength. The paper argues that, on a macro level, media distribution is correlated quite strongly with low rates of dissent (even after controlling for per capita income and type of regime).

This and other dynamics suggest that a significant disruption in the distribution of media may spark significant levels of dissent, possibly enough to topple a regime. Using this spring’s Egyptian uprising as a natural experiment, Hassanpour argues that a sudden shutdown of digital communication contributed to the overwhelming protests that forced Mubarak to step down.

The paper, of course, does not suggest that social media cannot contribute positively to the organization of rebellions; Hassanpour’s conclusions are nuanced (and well worth reading). But it does add to the growing skepticism of techno-progressive commandments: for instance, that cyber-freedom is a crucial tool in modern diplomacy [as the Obama administration appears to believe]. Arguably the most impressive accomplishment of the Arab Spring has been the victory of a disorganized and heterogeneous group of rebels in Libya, which succeeded thanks to Western military expertise and impressive tribal cohesion. A mere 5.5 percent of Libya’s population has access to the internet, and the regime shut off internet access completely in early March (notably, just before protest escalations and the beginning of Western military intervention.) The tactical victory that freed Libya hardly seems to have been won by digital democracy.

Of course, in Syria, the shutdown may indicate that the regime is panicking, and is about to fall for other reasons; the situation isn’t much like Egypt. If Assad is forced out of power, the victory will obviously much more closely resemble Libya’s, but in terms of digital connectivity, Syria, with about 20 percent of its population having access to the Internet, looks a lot more like Egypt (also around 20 percent) than Libya.

I also noted at the time the irony that the only serious aid the Obama administration appears to have given Iran’s Green Revolution protesters in the summer of 2009 was the lobbying of State Department official Jared Cohen, halfway around the world in Silicon Valley; he persuaded Twitter to postpone network maintenance so the protesters could continue using Twitter to communicate.

Patrick BrennanPatrick Brennan is a writer and policy analyst based in Washington, D.C. He was Director of Digital Content for Marco Rubio's presidential campaign, writing op-eds, policy content, and leading the ...

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