The Economic Cost of Controlling the Internet - Watch out Syria

There has just recently been an interesting report commissioned by Google which has estimated a that the Internet is worth staggering $100 billion to the UK economy. Now it actually probably doesn't come as that much of a surprise to most of us, if you stop and look the internet is now just so fundamental to peoples lives. But people are not just using it as entertainment any longer, the internet is used to buy, sell,trade and research.

I was sitting talking to a colleague at lunch a few weeks ago and he kept getting distracted by his I-Phone beeping at him. But these weren't the usual Twitter updates or trivial little SMS messages, each beep represented a sale at his Ebay store. This mild mannered IT architect had a thriving little T-Shirt business running alongside his main job. You would never have taken him as an entrepreneur and before the internet came along he probably never would have been.

It's now staggeringly easy to set up an online business, if you have a little knowledge you can set up everything from scratch in a few hours. Of course making money with it is slightly more difficult but contrast that with that effort required to set up a real life business - premises, rates, employees and insurance. The internet has opened up a staggering array of possibilities for economic prosperity for an individual right up to the biggest multinational corporations.

But now for the sad part as we consider a slightly more global scale. Countries which previously suffered from an economic disadvantage for whatever reason have been handed a fantastic new opportunity - access to global markets, gateway for entrepreneurs a chance to level the economic playing field. Unfortunately many Governments are rejecting this opportunity to their people by censoring, restricting and monitoring the internet in their particular country.

Take for instance the Country of Syria as an example, not the wealthiest country in the middle East but certainly not the poorest either - certainly you'd see chances for the country to gradually invest in a cyber infrastructure and bring more prosperity to the country. But alas no - they have decided to tread that weary path of political paranoia and focus on censorship, monitoring and spying on the internet instead.

How about this for a stupid made up crime being used against bloggers and online journalists - article 285 of the Syrian Criminal Code makes this an offence -

weakening national sentiment

People have been sentenced for three years for that 'crime', it's a good job we don't have it in  the United Kingdom or I'm pretty sure the England Football team would be in serious trouble!

They have combined this with all sorts of internet filtering, extensive monitoring of internet users and a number of other measures designed to instill fear and self censorship into anyone doing anything online.  For example if you go into a Cyber Cafe in Damascus you'd be expected to fill in a form with your name, identification numbers and even your parents names every time you use the internet.

That's right your parents names too!   Combine that with the requirement of the Cyber cafe to spy on you with the software provided for them by the government and you'll get a small idea of what it feels like to be an internet surfer in Syria.

Cafe owners who don't oblige are rewarded with caps on their internet speeds, meaning they end up going out of business anyway.

For your budding Syrian entrepreneur he's also got his hands tied by the sites that are blocked.  Youtube, Amazon and Facebook - three fantastic sites for selling and promoting products and services cannot be accessed.   You have to wonder how a regime feels it's under political attack from Amazon though, maybe it's because they sell books...........

Oddly enough whilst creating a third world internet surrounded by fear and restrictions on privacy and self expression - Syria has actually been investing in their communications infrastructure.  But as well as promoting the growth of the internet throughout the country they have of course been also investing in the latest monitoring technology.

The technical monitoring has been developed beyond the simple URL filtering that we all like (because it's so easy to bypass with a simple proxy).   Syria have invested in software from a Canadian company called Platinum Inc who sell a hardware based filtering system called Thundercache.   This is a sophisticated content filtering system unfortunately for Syrian surfers.   It's capable of deep packet inspection which means it actually looks inside the packets for URLs and data - this system effectively stops the use of proxies for surfing anonymously.

The reason is that the URL you wish to visit is listed in the packet itself , so just using a proxy doesn't help as it will with basic URL filters.   The only way to get passed these content filters is to use some layer of encryption in your browsing such as a VPN or Identity Cloaker, this means that the filter cannot decode the packet so has no idea about the target URL.

It's sad though so many of these countries have a real chance to engage with the Global community and economy via the internet instead they seem to see it's very existence as a threat rather than an opportunity.