Syria: Internet shutdowns planned despite promises to keep it on

Yesterday, news spread on social media about the intention of the Syrian authorities to cut off internet services in conjunction with the secondary school exams, starting June 7, 2023, purportedly to “prevent digital methods of cheating.”

This is not the first time the Syrian government resorts to internet shutdowns during national school exams. In May 2018 and August 2020, the authorities implemented the same measure during the secondary school certificate exams period. Similarly, in August 2022, the telecommunications company published a comparable schedule detailing the dates and areas affected by the service interruption. It stated that this procedure is in accordance with “the Ministry of Education’s request to ensure the examination process runs smoothly and to counter cyber intrusions and attacks on the secondary certificate exams.”

Ironically, in June 2021, the current Minister of Education, Darem Tabbaa, promised to end internet shutdowns during exams as of the academic year 2021-2022. Tabbaa claimed that shutting down the internet “was to avoid sudden disruptions that could impact students, parents, and exams officials.”

Dangerous Consequences of Internet Shutdown in Syria During Exams
Ahmed Al-Shaarawy, professor in digital media at the University of Damascus, expressed in an interview with SMEX that internet shutdowns during official exams have not yielded any benefits and have failed to prevent cheating. 

“The Ministry of Education should employ reasonable measures to prevent leaks without compromising the vital means of communication in the country,” Al-Shaarawy added. He criticized the authorities for choosing the easiest yet most ineffective solution, as internet shutdowns harm many individuals and disrupt commercial and economic interests. 

Tareq Kodmani, a graphic designer, also highlighted in an interview with SMEX that internet shutdowns disrupt work, especially in professions that require online access and communication among multiple parties. Part-time workers who lack equipped workspaces are particularly affected. 

“Shutting down the internet affects individuals’ productivity, hinders their ability to fulfill work obligations, and poses difficulties for those working for institutions outside Syria who find it hard to grasp the excuse of an internet shutdown,” Kodmani told SMEX.

Syrian economists have warned against the grave consequences of internet shutdowns, especially in the banking sector. “Without connection, the banking sector suffers due to the suspension of internet-dependent deposits and withdrawals,” according to economic analyst Ammar Youssef in a press interview in 2021. He added that cutting off communications and the internet affects emergency needs such as firefighting, ambulances, and handling accidents. 

Youssef further explained that severing internet connectivity results in the country’s isolation from the global system, causing distress for citizens and government institutions. Moreover, it disrupts morning transactions, paralyzes both public and private sectors, and hampers communication with the rest of the world.

Regional Domino Effect
Since 2015, several Arab governments, including Algeria, Sudan, Jordan, and Syria, have implemented deliberate internet shutdowns during official exam periods to limit information leakage and prevent cheating. These shutdowns involve either partial or complete disruption of internet services or a significant reduction in internet speed, also known as “throttling.” Despite being ineffective, these countries continued to employ these measures until 2021, causing significant economic damage and affecting society at large.

In addition to internet shutdowns, Syrian media reported on May 17, 2017, that the Syrian Telecom Company suddenly disconnected fixed telephone lines, even though subscribers had paid their bills.

Since 2015, Syria and Iraq have consistently shut down the internet during official preparatory and secondary exams (known as Brevet and Baccalaureate in Syria). Algeria joined these countries in 2016, and Mauritania followed suit last year.

The consequences of internet shutdowns have wide-ranging impacts on society. Fundamental rights such as freedom of expression, access to information, education, and the right to work are infringed upon. Such shutdowns erode people’s trust in internet services, as the unreliable nature of the internet raises concerns about its centralization.

Economically, internet shutdowns result in significant losses. A 2016 report by Deloitte estimated that temporary internet shutdowns in a highly connected country could result in losses amounting to $23.6 million per day for every 10 million people. In the same year, the Brookings Institution published a study revealing that internet shutdowns in 19 countries, nearly half of which were in the WANA region, cost the global GDP approximately $2.4 billion.

To explore further details on the methods used for internet shutdowns under the guise of combating fraud and cheating and to assess the impact of such decisions on society, the economy, and the internet as a whole in 2021, please refer to this report. It focuses on four main countries—Algeria, Jordan, Sudan, and Syria—simultaneously striving to develop their digital economies.

As part of the #NoExamShutdown campaign, SMEX, along with its partners in the region Access Now and ISOC Middle East, is closely monitoring access to the internet and telecommunications during exams in 2023. 

#NoExamShutdown #KeepItOn

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Zeinab Ismail

Zeinab Ismail is a Lebanese writer and journalist, and Arabic editor with SMEX.