This analysis, explaining why Facebook was blocked in Syria, was written to my by Idaf. It is very interesting. It argues that the reason Facebook was banned was not because of government concerns about virtual "civil society" as I wrote yesterday, an argument that has also appeared on the wire services today. Rather, Idaf argues, security heads in Syria were concerned to stop a spam campaign that used Facebook and was directed against the persons of President Asad and particularly his wife. It also argues that the number of Syrians participating on Facebook continues to expand despite the ban.
Here is Idaf's note:
Lets put things in a bit of context!
Since the blocking of Facebook in Syria (first ISP blocked it on Saturday, the last ISP to block it was on Thursday), I was monitoring the "Syria Network" on Facebook (the official Facebook network for Syria).
First, here are the facts, my analysis will follow:
1-Official number of Syrian Internet SUBSCRIBERS in Syria is 370,000 (end 2006). The total estimated number of USERS is 1.5 million users.
2-Number of Syrians residing in Syria who are members of Facebook (those on the official "Syria Network"): 28,350 users (23-Nov-2007)
3-Increase ratio of Syrians joining Facebook (overwhelming majority with their full name): 10,000 users per month. In early October, the number of Syrians on the "Syria Network" was 12,000, today it is over 28,000 users.
4-Percentage of Internet Users in Syria who are Facebook users: 28,300 / 1.5 million = 0.0055 percent
Cleary, if I was in security services, the Syrian security services would love to increase this number and have all Syrians on Facebook. This would facilitate fully monitoring people who are using their photo/full name/ address/phone/email..etc. So the theory for blocking Facebook because few of those well-identified non-anonymous users (all 0.005 percent of Internet users!) are "politically active" does not stand.
Why now? What has changed in the last few days? politically active Syrians were using Facebook since day one and no censorship took place until now. What has changed? Did the censors have a target of 0.005 percent of Internet users in Syria to block access to facebook?!
In my opinion, the reason is the following:
Since Facebook was launched, the official Syria Facebook network was overwhelmingly "social" in nature with occasional moderate "political activity". A couple of days before the blocking took place (on Nov 15th), a systematic vulgar spam campaign was launched in the Syria Network by few people (with avatars resembling Israeli flags and ridiculing Syrians and Bashar). Those few persistent users posted thousands of nothing but profanity and attacks on Syria, Bashar and Asma Alasad. I'm copying and pasting below a sample of these comments below so you can have an idea (The number of such messages posted was in the hundreds):
"KHARA 3LA SURYA"
"LETS F*** BASHAREL ASSAD"
"who wants to f*** asma al assad???"
"GOD BLESS ISRAEL" (over a 100 spam messages)
"ana 3alawi.. hawhaw hawwww"
"kes 2mak ya basharel assad"
"israel will destroy syria forever…"
"kess 2m Surya fi 2eri kes 2m surya fi 2eri… ISRAEL ISRAEL ISRAEL…"
Unlike the case in the last couple of years, by Nov 19 there was nothing on the Syria Network on Facebook but such comments in addition to Syrians who managed to override the censors who were posting tens of ways and methods to get through to Facebook. It worked well for most. However, this is still the case till now. Facebook people have not been active in blocking such spammers despite the hundreds of users reporting them on Facebook (calls to Report them is heavily repeated on the Syria network). The abusive spam attack was and is still till this moment systematic and organized. Whenever, a spammer is blocked by Facebook, he/she re-register again in a different email and password, join the Syria network and re-launch the abusive spam attacks.
If one enters the Syria Network in the last few days, they would find nothing but curses and profanity against Syria, Bashar and Asma Alasad. The Syrian censors acted as expected of any censorship system in the Middle East on such cases.. they blocked access to Facebook!
Anyone is welcome to try the following interesting experiment:
-Organize a team of few dedicated college students.
-Ask them to join Facebook on the Jordanian, Egyptian, Saudi, UAE, Qatari or Tunisian official networks. Let them spam the network with profanity attacking the president/king in that country with such dedication. I argue that in a matter of hours Facebook would be blocked in such countries. In fact, several social networking tools (similar to Facebook) are blocked in the most progressive (and politically neutral) Gulf countries such as the UAE (Dubai) and Bahrain (services such as Google's Orkut for example). This is because very few opposition elements used to exist on them.
I can suggest an even better experiment: Get 20-30 young angry Palestinians to do the same steps above on the official Israel network. I bet that Facebook admins will be pressured (by Israeli Facebook users) to block IP addresses (ie. censor) from the originating geographic location of the spammers (which might cause cutting access to Facebook from a specific Arab country).
Despite heavy-handedness in Internet censorship in Syria, I don't think that the "political activity" of a small portion of 0.005 percent of Syrian Internet users (most of whom by the way -as Alex argued- were staunchly defending Bashar online against such attack!) was the reason behind Facebook getting blocked. It was the systematic abusive spam attack that the Syrian censors had no other control on but to block access. I argue that Syria Comment or Creative Syria blogs have far more "political activity" of Syrian opposition than Facebook but they are still accessible in Syria.
Being as short-sighted as they are, the Syrian censorship authorities thought that blocking 28,000 users from accessing online forum (just to not allow them to read such comments) would not have much impact. They did not realize (again) that the fact that they blocked a website will cause negative noise in the media, far more damaging than some of the few of the 28,000 thousand Syrians reading (and rejecting) slurs against their country or president.
After reading all the spam from AIG on Syria Comment and other Syria-focused blogs, the "conspiracy theorist" in me is starting to believe that some amateur in Israel is recruiting young Israelis to sabotage Syrian online forums 🙂
However, don't worry about the Syrian Facebook users. Syrian online content have become "un-censorable" in Syria. Tens of Syrian home-grown anti-censorship "cracking and Hacking" tools come pre-installed on any laptop/desktop PC bought in Syria. Most of the 28 thousand users will continue to access Facebook (same case with YouTube and BlogSpot). These are the most technically savvy of Syrians anyway. In the last few days, I started receiving emails including lists of tens of methods for overcoming censorship of Facebook, sent from Syrian email addresses I do not recognize. Some of these methods are even getting posted and updated on several newly formed Syrian groups on Facebook (where Syrians are joining with their full names). Despite all the hype, Internet censorship in Syria is limited, ineffective and technically incomprehensive.
The media hype on this is way greater than the actual impact of censorship in Syria. In contrast, Internet censorship in many Gulf countries is almost unbreakable. Unlike in Syria, governments there heavily invest in Internet censorship (for example, Flickr and Urkut are censored in most of the Gulf, many Arabic newspapers website are blocked in Jordan and the Gulf).
Finally I did another quick experiment and noticed that the average number of Syrians joining the Facebook did not change much. Refreshing the official Syria Network page on Facebook continued to reveal a steady increase of number of Syrians joining (The number has increased by 30 new member during the time I was writing this message, despite the fact that it is early morning in Syria). The current number of users on Syria network is 28,350.