Syria Slams the Door on Facebook

Dennis Faas's picture

In a strange reversal from two summers ago, last week young Syrians sought 'refuge' in neighboring Lebanon. The alleged reason for this exodus? Facebook.

In a move to further restrict free speech and political activism in the country Bashar Assad's government shut down access to the fast-growing social network. (Source:

Advocate Dania al-sharif told Reuters last week that, "Facebook helped further civil society in Syria and form civic groups outside government control. This is why it has been banned." (Source: Officials were apparently concerned that Israel could use Facebook to connect with, and subvert, Syrian youths.

Other crackdowns in the country have included a restriction of Internet services in public cafes, and many Lebanese newspapers are blocked as is Hotmail, Blogger, and YouTube.

There is even an 'Internet political crimes' ward at one Syrian prison. Those who publish criticisms of the government online are routinely brought in for questioning. Ahed al-Hindi, was arrested last year after an Internet cafe manager videotaped his online activities. In an interview with The Globe and Mail, al-Hindi said he served a month in prison for posting "political comments on the human-rights situation." Following his release, he was "monitored" by Syria's spy agency, Mukhabarat.  He has since fled the country and is now living in Lebanon.

As in North America, Facebook is a very popular forum in the Middle East for people hoping to connect with friends and family, but has also become a wellspring of political discussion. For a country that has been under one-party rule since 1970, and where criticism of the government is forbidden, it is little surprise the new outlet has been banned. "They cut off communications between us and the outside world," Mais al-Sharbaji, an avid Facebook user said. "We are used to this behavior from our government."

That may be, but as with anything web based, officials will find it difficult to completely clamp down on popular movements. The Facebook group, "Don't Block FACEBOOK in Syria!!..." currently has 1,498 members, with many citizens discussing how to get around the government's virtual barricades.

'Web 2.0' companies are increasingly having to weigh moral judgment against business decisions. Google and Yahoo have been heavily criticized for bending to demands from the Chinese government, and with so much personal information on Facebook's servers the company may find itself in a similar and yet far more serious position one day. Yet, considering Mark Zuckerberg's recent announcement of the Beacon program and the ensuing public outcry, I am not so sure privacy and security are as high on the company's priority list as they should be.

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