Opening up an Internet café in Syria? Good luck

Internet cafés in Syria have become targets in the government's policy of repression. MENASSAT takes a look at the difficulties of setting up these businesses that are on the front lines of the battle for free speech.
syria internet café R.R.

DAMASCUS, June 12, 2008 (MENASSAT) – Tough licensing procedures, harsh security regulations, strict censorship measures, and blatant abuses of personal privacy are among the litany of things that young entrepreneurs endure when setting up Internet cafés in Syria.

New Internet laws keep coming and Syrian authorities often quote unwritten legal conditions because they are, like many Arab governments, behind the technology curve, always scrambling to figure out new ways to catch up in their methods of control.

Take the bureaucratic process that any would-be Internet café owner must now endure.

First, you have to get a license from the Syrian Telecommunications Institution, which inevitably involves a great deal of paperwork and administrative procedures.

Next, there is a security license granted by the Interior Ministry in which a set of security instructions is issued in a coordinated effort with the Telecommunications Institution.

Among the instructions given to potential café owners by this joint communiqué are that each café visitor must provide his name, ID, and the names of his or her mother and father.

The café owner must then present to visitors instructions as to which religious and political websites they are banned from using.

A typical sign-up sheet at an internet cafe in Syria. Names of father, mother and  ID must be presented, although this is often not enforced. © Omar Abdelatif

Reporters Without Borders estimates that the Syrian authorities had previously banned over 100 websites, while the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCMFE) estimates that more than 161 sites have been banned, with the latest being Wikipedia, Youtube and Maktoob blogs.

As for the sites of "questionable moral standing," they come at the end of the list of banned websites. Although in practice, the porn websites are available in nearly every café.

Inevitably there are the lectures from the authorities in both governmental offices briefing you about what you need to avoid when you operate the café; euphemisms for "We will get you if you don’t censor your users."

And the penalties are stiff for those who fail to follow the rules. These range from simply closing the café to having the licenses withdrawn, paying huge fines and in extreme cases, jail time.

A difficult task

In the end, sources told MENASSAT that the cost of the operating license could sometimes reach $6,000, depending on whom you know in the government.

Samer, who owns an Internet café in Damascus, told MENASSAT that he "went through hell to get his license."

"The license cost 50,000 Syrian Liras or about $1,000, in addition to 10,000 SL for the rent per month, the license papers, the approval of the security services, a copy of the appropriation or rent lease, a legal paper that indicates the shop is for commercial purposes. After that, a committee from the Telecommunication Institution had to come to check on the café and the equipment and end this matter," he said.

"But the strange thing – and I find this very sad as well – is that the Syrian authorities ask the Internet café owners to spy on the customers. Is this normal?”

Another Damascus Internet café owner, Azzam, told MENASSAT that the government is well known for cutting service or restricting internet speeds to those café owners they "don't like."

"They (the government) reduced our capacity from 2 megabytes per second to one megabyte per second without any prior notice. And we did an informal poll in the area only to find out that this 'official' decision didn't include everyone, just some specific places," he said.

"We asked the Telecommunications Institution and the rest of the service providers to give us more capacity-speed but they refused. It is forbidden to have more capacity, and there is no alternative."

He added, "We incur a lot of economic losses because or our poor Internet performance. I mean the connection is very slow, and everything is monitored."

The rules of the game: Syrian internet service provider AYA.NET details what you can and cannot do when surfing the internet in Syria.

MENASSAT has documented the cases of several bloggers who have been jailed for their work, but little is reported about the Internet cafés that some of these bloggers may have been working from.

In practice, it is also true that a lot of the websites with restricted access in Syria can be reached by using proxy sites, which are web pages that allow users to browse the internet without using their own IP addresses. This means you can visit a proxy site, type in the address you want to use and the proxy site retrieves and displays the page.

Syrian censors have not totally figured out how to deal with these proxy sites, which only allow monitors to see that a visitor has gone to a proxy site, versus seeing a potentially banned site that a user has pulled up.

Meanwhile, government attempts to control the businesses that peddle free access to information have expanded beyond Internet cafés to include mobile phone stores.

In this case, the Interior Ministry and the Syrian Telecommunications Institution have recently issued a set of security measures instructing that mobile phone shops stop selling mobile phone models such as the Nokia 82, Motorola and Nokia 95.

The reason being: these phones have global positioning systems (GPS) and they have wireless application protocol (WAP) services that are not being properly monitored by the service providers.