When a firewall blocking Facebook and YouTube was quietly lifted by the Syrian regime on February 8th, direct traffic to YouTube shot up.
This may appear to be the picture of four million Internet users scrambling to catch up on three years worth of viral videos. But in reality, Syrians have freely accessed these services through proxy servers for years.
When I was in Damascus in December, upscale cafes in the city center were filled with people on laptops openly looking at Facebook. I found a browser plugin that automatically accessed pages via https rather than plain old http, which made Facebook work fine even without a proxy. The Syrian President himself even has a popular Facebook fan page with over 100,000 followers.
Still, while calls for an Egypt-style “Day of Rage” protest in Damascus in early February garnered 15,000 Facebook supporters, UPI reported that only about a dozen protesters actually showed up, and were promptly beaten away by plainclothes police.
So how much does online freedom actually equate to freedom in the streets?
Ramy Mansour, a print and TV journalist who also edits the news website shukumaku.com says that government repression of information is minimal, and is mostly self-imposed.
“The government says that the red-line [of stories too controversial or critical of the government to publish] is here,” he says, holding his hand, palm-down at his forehead. “Most journalists, they only go to here” bringing his other hand well below his chin.
Dissident blogger Ayman Abdul Nour argues that the regime has been masterful in co-opting dissent and marketing itself to a tech-savvy younger generation.
“The President is the head of anti-corruption. He is the head of the IT association. He is using the iPod, digital camera, all of this stuff…this is what the young people want.”
When I visited the Information Ministry in Damascus myself, to register as a foreign journalist, I was expecting a sleek operation room filled with blinking monitors and agents busily searching for and shutting down dissident websites.
Instead, I saw a dingy office with a handful of ancient computers and tangles of wires. When my escort from the Ministry wanted to show me his favorite online Yoga forum (don’t ask — that’s a whole other story), he spent several minutes cursing the excruciatingly slow connection speed.
So what’s really keeping Syria from a people’s revolution like we saw in Egypt?
According to dissidents like Abdul Nour, it actually has less to do with technological repression, and much more to do with old fashioned intelligence: people spying on their neighbors and reporting subversive conversations they overhear in cafés to intelligence services.
Or maybe the country is just not fertile grounds for protest, because most Syrians are still happy under the 40-year dictatorship. After all, almost everyone I broached the subject with was quick to tell me how much they loved the government.