Widespread Internet Outages Reported In Syria

Early Thursday morning, the Internet in Syria went dark. Technology analysts suspect the Syrian government was behind the action, perhaps as part of an effort to blunt advances by rebel forces. Governments in recent years have become more mindful of the potentially subversive power of the Internet and also more knowledgeable about how to shut it down. The outage in Syria underscores the importance of current disputes over who should control the global Internet. That issue is the focus of a major international conference next week in Dubai.

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More now on the Internet outage across Syria. Without high-speed Internet, activists lose a key access point. They use the Web to reach the outside world with information and with videos. NPR's Tom Gjelten reports on how governments are learning to control the Internet and even shut it down.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The company that broke the news of the Syrian Internet outage, Renesys, monitors the entire Internet on behalf of clients who want to know how they're reaching their online customers. Jim Cowie, the chief technology officer, was eating breakfast this morning when he received a text message advising him to check out what was happening in Syria. He was stunned by what he found.

JIM COWIE: The domestic Internet of Syria disappeared from sight over the course of three or four minutes, very quickly. It really does look like a switch being thrown if you look at the data.

GJELTEN: Opposition activists have previously accused the Syrian authorities of cutting off telephone and Internet services in the country to cover up government operations or make it difficult for rebel forces to communicate. But Cowie says the government today apparently felt compelled to take more dramatic action beyond what it's done in the past.

COWIE: The government has turned off the Internet in specific cities for specific operations, a very surgical approach. This is not that. What we're seeing today is a blanket disconnection of the national infrastructure from the global infrastructure.

GJELTEN: Around the world, people access the Internet through gateways, Internet service providers, or ISPs. In order to shut down the Internet, a government has to be able to shut down those ISPs. In the United States and other big, advanced countries, that wouldn't be possible. There are too many of them. Andrew McLaughlin, formerly the number two technology officer at the White House, says in order to control the Internet, governments need to take steps ahead of time to make sure ISPs don't develop their networks so as to be independent.

ANDREW MCLAUGHLIN: Instead, what they want to do is consolidate the physical infrastructure of the network into a single company or a single facility so that there is one point of control that you can call on that dark day where you need to shut things down.

GJELTEN: Governments can do that if they own all the Internet service providers or if they make sure the ISPs are all housed in a few locations. The authorities in that case can just shut the power off to those facilities. That's what the government in Egypt did last year. Mindful of what happened in Egypt, the U.S. government has provided opposition activists in Syria with computers with dial-up satellite phone connections so they can bypass the government-controlled ISPs. But this battle is not just technical. It's now taking a political turn.

Next week, governments will gather in Dubai to consider whether the United Nations should have a larger role in governing the Internet. Countries like Syria, Iran, China and Russia are making the argument that governments should have the right to control what happens on the Internet within their own borders. Andrew McLaughlin says governments already know on their own how to control Internet usage. What they need, he says, is to look legitimate.

MCLAUGHLIN: What they're looking for from that process is basically the ability to go back to their own people and say, look, what we're doing here is the same as what every other country is doing and see how we've gotten this blessing.

GJELTEN: There's more to come. Governments and reformers alike are clearly getting smarter about how to fight in the Internet domain. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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