In twist, Chinese company keeps Syria on Internet

Sanctions, physical disruptions have left Syrians dependent on PCCW of Hong Kong for free flow of information, Renesys says

In a somewhat ironic turn of events, a telecom company based in China, a country famous for Internet censorship, has become the primary means of Internet access for people looking to get information out of war-torn Syria.

An analysis of Internet traffic flowing into and out of Syria over the past few days, shows that a major portion of it is being routed through Hong Kong-based PCCW, according to Internet monitoring firm Renesys.

Turk Telecom, which used to be the biggest provider of Internet connectivity services to Syria has completely dropped out of the picture since August 12 while other smaller providers like Telecom Italia appear to be fading away as well, the company said.

That has left PCCW carrying a lion's share of the Internet traffic to and from Syria, Renesys analyst Doug Madory said today.

What's unclear yet is if the situation is the result of the tightening economic sanctions against Syria or whether it stems from infrastructure damages inside the country as a result of the ongoing conflict, he said.

"While U.S. firms are barred by sanctions, it is China, a country that bans YouTube via the Great Firewall, that is largely responsible for the free flow of information out of Syria," Renesys general manager Earl Zmijewski added.

The Internet has played a big role in the civilian uprisings in the Middle East over the past two years. The huge protests in Egypt, Tunisia and Iran were fueled to an extent by social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook.

Though the governments in each of those countries attempted to throttle access to social networks by cutting off access to Internet services many still managed to find their way around such efforts thanks in large part to support from companies and organizations in countries friendly to their cause.

The escalating conflict in Syria has already resulted in several major Internet outages over the past six weeks, Madory said. Syria's only Internet provider, the Syria Telecommunications Establishment (STE) briefly withdrew all 61 of the country's networks from the global routing table last Friday. It did the same thing intermittently with about 20 networks on Saturday.

"When there's a big outage we see routes to different networks being withdrawn from the global routing table," which is what has been happening in Syria for the past several weeks.

In addition to these outages, Renesys has also observed a fairly dramatic shift in the service to Syria being provided by the different telecommunications companies in the region, Madory said. Turk Telecom, which was by far the biggest provider of services to the STE, briefly disappeared for a while on August 3rd before dropping out of sight entirely on August 12.

The change in service levels could be the result of physical infrastructure damage or because of configuration changes made by the company to exclude traffic flowing in and out of Syria. The result is that all 61 of Syria's networks are now directing traffic through PCCW's networks.

What's interesting is that major U.S. telecommunications companies such as Level 3 and Cogent currently provide Internet services to Syria's neighbors such as Lebanon, but are prohibited from providing the same services in Syria.

"With the diminishing role of western carriers, PCCW is left as a primary means for the Syrian people to document the ongoing conflict, such as via timely YouTube videos, Madory wrote in a blog post on Tuesday. "Ultimately, telecommunications bans could prove counterproductive if they end up placing barriers to the free flow of information," he said.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed. His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

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This story, "In twist, Chinese company keeps Syria on Internet" was originally published by Computerworld.

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