“Shells have been going off all around us today. A school nearby was struck by rockets off a MiG jet overhead,” said Hilsman, speaking on Skype from a safehouse Aleppo.
But while he was online, reporting on the escalation in regime strikes, Syria’s internet blackout was taking hold across the rest of the country. Syria cut off access to internet service, isolating the country from the worldwide web. Internet traffic in and out of Syria dropped to zero, shortly after 12 noon local time. Web-monitoring service Akamai confirmed. “Syria is effectively off the internet.”
Hilsman stayed online through a satellite internet connection, using equipment brought in from Turkey, paid for by a French supporter of the Free Syrian Army.
The internet shutdown is an unprecedented move in Syria, the latest salvo in the cyber war between rebel force and the government of President Bashar al Assad.
“The regime has tried everything else…they have been increasing surveillance, increasing censorship. That’s why there’s this feel that this is a sign they’re getting desperate,” said Jillian York, an internet freedom expert at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
With Thursday’s internet blackout, information from Syria has slowed to a trickle. Syrian cyber activist Dlshad Othman estimates that less than one thousand people were online on Thursday in Syria, out of a population of 20 million.
That left journalists unable to report on the escalation in fighting.
“It’s a very serious problem. Journalists who don’t have this uplink are completely blacked out,” said Hilsman. As the blackout took effect, shelling intensified in Aleppo, which mirrored heavy fighting in other parts of the country.
The US government condemned Syria’s internet shutdown and said it is supporting the opposition with communication gear.
“They are all designed to be independent from and able to circumvent the Syrian domestic network precisely for the reason of keeping them safe, keeping them secure from regime tampering, from regime listening, from regime interruption,” said State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
Othman, the cyber activist, says there aren’t enough of those kits in Syria to keep a significant number of people online. Plus, he says there are safety risks in using them to stay online.
“We’ve asked people to turn off their satellite connections,” said Othman.
“The regime may be scanning for those connections, so we’ve asked people to turn off their satellite connections to stay safe.”