Syrian opposition groups and international aid groups are hustling to figure out a way for Syrian civilians to gain access to the outside world after nearly all Internet -- and possibly cell phone service inside the country went down today.
Many are concerned that this communications blackout is the precursor to a nation-wide massacre by the Assad regime.
"This is the MO of the regime before it storms any given area, they cutoff communications, water, power, before they storm and what always happens is a massacre," Rafif Jouejati, a U.S. representative for the Local Coordination Committees in Syria told Killer Apps today. "The fear is that this is going to be a nationwide storming, if that's possible."
However, "state TV and state supported television are reporting that, on one hand, that it was ‘terrorists' that brought down the Internet and the other story we're hearing [from the official outlets] it that it's a system malfunction and they're working hard to repair it quickly, so the state isn't even coming out with a consistent message," said Jouejati.
Right now, it's impossible to tell for sure who or how the Internet, cell networks and some landlines were cut -- though some reports indicate that a single router handling the majority of Syrian web traffic was taken offline.
"You might have a single Internet exchange point in Damascus that's been shut down, much the same way that Mubarak did [in Egypt, at the height of the protests in Tahrir Square]. Authoritarian regimes often will architect their Internet activity to have a single point of surveillance and monitoring and uplink" that can be easily unplugged, said Sascha Meinrath, director of the Internet in a Suitcase project at the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute. "The good news, if there is any, is that it probably won't take more than a few days to establish other links into" Syria.
Meinrath doubts the rebels took out the internet connection, "it seems unlikely that such a critical resource would be accessible to the rebels, especially as these systems are often in the heart of the city."
For now, "the workaround is dial up ... and that information is circulating on the Internet, which is not really helpful, but people are able to call to their families [because] not all landlines are down, and of course people with satellite phones are able to get the message so we're trying to spread it as widely as possible," said Jouejati.
The real problem will be if cell phone and landline networks remain down -- then things will become "much tougher and much more dangerous," added Meinrath, who echoed Jouejati's concerns that this is the precursor to a government massacre.
"Right now we know very little, we know that a number of ... servers have been cut off, and we are unable to reach spots that we had access to. I would say we won't know the extent of things for at least another few hours," said Meinrath.
If this was a government act, said Meinrath, "it's a sign that they've identified a crucial resource for democratic organizing and they've attempted to cut it off. They see the Internet as a force multiplier for good and they're working very diligently to make sure that resource is no longer available to the opposition."
The Internet in a Suitcase project is meant to provide people around the world with a secure means of accessing the web in disaster zones or places with severe government monitoring of communications.
"Internet in a Suitcase is built for exactly theses kinds of scenarios," said Meinrath, though he cautioned that his effort is not yet secure enough to ensure that its users will not be monitored by government forces. (Click here to read more about the project whose development was funded by the U.S. State Department.)
While Internet in a Suitcase is still being tested in relatively safe environments, Meinrath's group is in touch with the State Department about a possible deployment to Syria.
"We first put in a proposal to work [in Syria] six months ago, and were turned down," said Meinrath. "We were then invited to submit a statement of interest, which we did two weeks ago. Unfortunately, it's going to be too late to be of use in the current moment."
Meanwhile, the State Deparment says that it has distributed 2,000 secure "communication kits" to the region.
"Yes, we've provided some 2000 communication kits since this effort began. these are all kinds of things - computers, cameras, phones - they are all designed to be independent from and circumvent the Syrian network .... precisely to keep them free from regime tampering, interference and interception," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
Here is the statement put out by the Local Coordination Committees on how Syrian residents may access the outside world.
In a move which raises fears that the regime is preparing for something, the criminal Syrian regime cut all communications (cellular networks, landlines and the internet service) in most areas of Damascus, which is the capital, and in its suburbs. In addition, communications were cut in most areas in the governorates of Hama, Homs, Daraa; in all areas in the governorates of Tartous and Swaida; and in some cities in Deir Ezzor and Raqqa.
The Coordinating Committees hold the regime responsible for any massacres that would be committed in any Syrian cities after such a move was made. Also, they call upon the world to move quickly and to take practical steps to protect civilians from the regime's crimes.
In addition, the Committees would like to remind the Syrian people that it is possible to connect to the internet via the dial-up service:
Dial up access Syria: +46850009990 +492317299993 +4953160941030
password:telecomix OR +33172890150
Additional reporting by David Kenner.