Syria and Facebook: Not quite friends
Yesterday, less than a week after activists held a candlelight vigil in Damascus to show solidarity with protesters in Egypt, Syria's authoritarian government ended a national ban on Facebook and YouTube.
But the jury is out on whether the move by Bashar al-Assad's government was a legitimate effort to permit greater freedom of expression, a PR stunt or, worse, a means to monitor expressions of unrest.
Al-Watan, a newspaper with ties to the Syrian government, quoted analysts as saying that the decision to allow Syrians unrestricted access to social media indicated "the government's confidence in its performance" and shows "the state did not fear any threat coming from these two sites nor others."
But in truth, the government's move is not that much of a breakthrough. Plenty of Syrians were using Facebook in the past. It's common knowledge in Syria that cafes and other places of recreation host foreign proxy Web sites to let users get around state-run firewalls blocking access to social media.
The difference was that, until yesterday, Syrians often masked their identities. All that Syria's letting them do now is use social media with their names attached.
"Foreign proxy servers are traded among young people like baseball cards," Robert Worth wrote in the New York Times in 2010. Accessing the sites is a matter of finding the right café.
According to D-Press, a pro-government Syrian site, about 200,000 Syrians use Facebook. That's about one-twelfth the number of Syrians regularly using the Internet, according to the Open Net Initiative.
The downside is that many Syrians using these sites have had to do so anonymously, for fear of government reprisal. Will allowing people to interact online with their names attached matter much if Syria does not also respect their rights to free speech?
The United States has voiced this concern. After Syria's social media announcement, Alec Ross, senior adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, called the decision "positive," but said he's "concerned that freedom puts users at risk absent freedom of expression & association."
Syria ranks a dismal 172nd out of 178 countries for press freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders. The government closely watches what citizens say online and routinely imprisons critics of the regime. Syrian law prohibits criticism of President Bashar Assad, other state officials and even the economy.
And there are good questions about whether online protests, in Syria at least, will translate into action on the streets.
Just last week, for instance, Syrian Facebook users advocated a "day of rage" in Damascus -- a call for an anti-government protest that was reportedly inspired by demonstrations in Egypt and Tunisia.
The campaign, which began on Facebook, ultimately rallied about 16,000 supporters online, but no protesters were seen on the streets.
And the attempt by Syrians to mobilize candlelight vigils for Egyptian protesters was thwarted by security forces that hired locals to intimidate organizers, according to Human Rights Watch.