Syria and the Tragic Dream of Autonomous Internet Access: The Case of Bassel Safadi and the Syrian Revolution

Harry Halpin

This chapter is dedicated to all those who perished in the struggle for free communication and knowledge in Syria, including Bassel Khartabil.1

Introduction

No-one expected the Syrian revolution: an e-mail in my inbox from a programmer there, Bassel Safadi, asking for an account on the secure riseup.net server, in the early days of the outbreak of the Syrian revolution came as a surprise. Bassel was a friend of a friend, who had put Bassel directly in touch with me when Syrian activists needed access to a VPN (virtual private network). Bassel was a thoughtful, idealistic, and remarkably intelligent advocate of free software and access to knowledge, who had worked for years contributing to projects such as Mozilla and a З-D model of the ancient city of Palmyra. Overnight, he had become dedicated to social movements as his people began their own uprising for dignity. At that time, we at the LEAP Encryption Access Project (2019) had been working on a highly secure VPN for activists over a year that was free both as in “free beer” and at no cost, but also free as in free software, allowing anyone access to and the ability to edit the source code (Sparrow et al. 2016). With Bassel imprisoned and then murdered by the al-Assad regime, and war in Syria continuing to unfold like a nightmare wherein our agency seems to have been reduced to negligibility, I can only look back in sorrow for not acting faster and having the software we were working on more prepared for deployment by ordinary people, who in this most extraordinary of times, have been unexpectedly transformed into revolutionaries. Bassel also had a clear plan with objectives to create autonomous Internet access to facilitate access to knowledge and across the globe we can learn from his ambitious plan and the wider Syrian experience of censorship and repression.

The term “revolution” is itself contentious in the context of Syria, but the Syrian uprising transformed into a revolution insofar as the uprising eventually adopted as its aim and result the overthrow of the government, and so irrevocably transforming the political order initiated by Hafez al-Assad’s 1970 coup. Although the original Facebook page put up to call for the “Days of Rage” in Syria was called “Syrian Revolution 2011” (Ghattas 2011), many participants in the initial series of uprisings in Syria may have not intend to overthrow the government: the initial focus was more on demands for the release of prisoners, the support of human rights, and a measure of increased institutional democracy that Bashar al-Assad himself thought the government could accommodate via reforms. This was even demonstrated by al-Assad’s withdrawal of the “state of emergency” that had been in place in Syria for nearly half a century, but this gesture was not enough to quell the uprisings. While the initial popular uprisings in 2011 were not in any way armed, factions ranging from the Free Syrian Army to various Islamic groups, took up arms against the government with revolution as an explicit goal." Whether or not what unfolded in Syria was or an intentional revolution is up for debate, but what is clear is that the uprising eventually became a revolution regardless of whether or not the participants considered themselves revolutionaries. Even though many of the original participants in the civilian uprisings in 2011 considered themselves simply citizens and activists, not standard-bearers of revolution, objectively these voices were treated by the regime as revolutionaries. As the uprisings led to civil war in Syria, and the intended end-result of what should replace al-Assad varied between an imagined representative democracy or the nightmare of Daesh, it became also clear that a revolution does not have to be successful (such as 1905 in Russia) to be a revolution. At the present moment, the Syrian revolution in 2011 has led to devastation and not changed the government in the majority of the country. It is with this critical understanding of the “Syrian Revolution” that we wish to explore how access to knowledge becomes crucial when what starts as a popular “non-violent” demand for dignity becomes, even without conscious intention, a political revolution with human lives at stake.

The power of access to knowledge has always been a political question, as put forward by the Access to Knowledge (A2K) movement:

the coordination of public policy ... to ensure that the potential for knowledge-based development is maximized through programs, technologies and business models that enable knowledge to be shared widely and to flourish in conditions of freedom. In this way, knowledge resources can be leveraged for the benefit of all, rather than be constrained or monopolized for the benefit of a few.

(Rizk and Shaver 2010)

This movement has grown throughout the last few years, demanding and often succeeding in opening up forms of closed knowledge so that these new “knowledge commodities” can be used throughout the world. In terms of being able to open up the valuable knowledge needed to run mobile telephony, a vast range of proprietary cell phone tower technology and closed- source software has hampered this development in terms of open mobile telephony. Indeed, open-source software such as OpenBTS and OpenBSC attempts to “reverse engineer” often closed specifications and technologies, and thus it is no surprise that this effort has for the most part proven to be a failure with a few exceptions.

Opening up the knowledge of how to run a mobile telephony network must be a priority, given the foundational role mobile telephony plays in access to knowledge. Rather than opening up any particular knowledge ranging from agricultural to medical knowledge, in the long term, it is more important to open up general methods of transmitting knowledge as given by networking and mobile telephony. Strangely enough, the situation around fundamental rights such as the right to housing, food, health services and even freedom of thought can realistically only be established at this present moment by enabling free and open access to knowledge to the Internet. If the Internet can be accessed, humanity can at least feasibly self-organize around these rights, but if the Internet via control of a few telephone operators can be turned off at a whim, the situation is much grimmer.

To return to the global viewpoint, can programmers in the era of the Internet serve the people rather than their own narrow individual self-interest? Ultimately, programmers are not divorced from the historical, social realities of the rest of the world and cannot isolate themselves from the wider social struggles around them, even by encasing themselves in virtual worlds and safe suburbs in Silicon Valley. These struggles decide the fate of their friends, family, and governments. Programmers should put themselves at the service of the people. Programmers have no choice but to program for unpredictable future revolutions without the knowledge of when and where these future moments of rupture will unfold.

Problems similar to those of programmers in the Middle East confronted protesters in the United States of America. A lack of coverage by a tightly controlled “official” news media led to the development of Indymedia, the first web software for independent journalism, where any person could post a news story with photos. Indymedia was created in 1999 before the Seattle WTO protests in order to prevent the press from censoring the street protests in the United States (Coleman 2005). Years later, Indymedia programmers started a Twitter feed based on the same core concepts, and so it should come ultimately as no surprise that these technologies also were useful in the hands of protesters in the Arab world.

As programmers serve a people yet to come, the question facing programmers is what is to be programmed? Programming is laborious and methodical slow-going work, requiring months and years of intense concentration and boring debugging. To program in the sendee of future social movements requires both unyielding patience and radical hope. It cannot be done easily in the middle of the chaos of a protest, much less a revolution. Therefore, the best way to determine what is to be programmed and what wider technological infrastructure is needed is by empirically determining the needs of concrete social struggle rather than idly daydreaming up a technological fantasy, be that a new secure messaging protocol or blockchain system. And what better guide could there be than the ghost of Bassel Safadi, the Syrian hacker that became a freedom fighter and died for the dignity of his people?

Technical needs of social movements

Revolutions are as unpredictable as the falling of a star, and it is precisely this unpredictability that has been accelerated by the widespread access to the Internet. Take the Tunisian revolution: despite all the analysis that all uprisings and revolutions can be predicted by economic factors (Lagi, Bertrand, and Bar-Yam 2011), the first of the Arab Uprisings started after the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a humiliated shopkeeper. Despite the crisis of2008, Tunisia and much of the Arab world has been in crisis since the post-colonial Arab nationalist movements descended into kleptocracies run by inherited despots in the 1980s. The underlying economic and political conditions have been intolerable in Tunisia for decades, so what triggered the spread of the Tunisian revolution? Although it has become fashionable to denounce the role of the Internet in popular uprisings (Morozov 2011), what cannot be doubted is that the Internet allowed the news of the Tunisian revolution in rural Kasserine to bypass the official censorship of Ben Ali and—at least at the onset—the Western corporate press. This in turn led the protests against police brutality to go viral across Tunisia. Due to the divisions in the elite and army as well as the lack of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) support for Ben Ali—as revealed by WikiLeaks—the anny did not fire on protesters in Tunis. As a result, Ben Ali was deposed by his own people. On a larger scale, the good tidings of the success of the Tunisian revolution spread throughout the Arab World, including via social media in countries where the ruling class had censored the press, sparking uprising after uprising: Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria. It is the tragic trajectory of Syria—and the role of access to knowledge via the Internet—that must be understood so that future generations will not make the error of the old.

As 2011 dawned, while witnessing the failure of the “alter-globalization” movement in Europe and the United States, I had been caught unaware by the Arab Uprisings. I found myself re-energized by visits to Avenue Bourguiba in Tunis and Tahrir Square in Egypt. In this regard, I will always owe the courageous people of the Arab Uprisings for their ability to host a strange American like myself, and the knowledge I have learned has been incalculable, and these hard-fought lessons continue to inspire me after so many hard-fought victories and tragic failures. Strangely, it is in a well-intentioned failure that we can learn more from than a superficial success. As the Arab Uprisings spread like a prairie fire throughout the world, they took off in Syria in early 2011 after the arrests of children in Deraa for street graffiti—“The people want to overthrow the regime” and “It’s your turn, Dr. al-Assad” (Anonymous 2016). The Syrian protests bore similarities to #Black-LivesMatter protests in the United States, with a protest against police brutality: the parents of the arrested children went to the police to demand their release, and the police threatened to rape them “if they still needed children.” Thereafter, on March 18, 2011, people took to the street demanding dignity and freedom in

Deraa, which immediately provoked live gunfire from the police. The protests spread, and the earlier demands for reform spiraled into large scale civil unrest with demands for the overthrow of the President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad. Al-Assad at first seemed caught by surprise but, determined to avoid the fate of the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak or the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, he began a brutal campaign of military repression. Interestingly enough, one of the first acts he took was to destroy the hackerspace, Aiki Lab, in Damascus (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights 2019). To those in Damascus this was not a surprise, as a number of programmers had taken important roles in the Syrian revolution. One of these was open-source contributor Bassel Khartabil who co-founded Aiki Lab in 2010. In order to protect his identity, he worked under the assumed name Bassel Safadi, including when communicating with me. The emails from Bassel, which I received from him from February 20, 2012 to March 2, 2012, are included in this piece unedited as quoted texts. This means that the text from Bassel generally lacks capitalization and often verges on telegraphic. In order to convey the spirit of the communication I leave the grammar of the e-mail unchanged.

Bassel reached out to me to discuss how to improve the communication of Syrian activists given the centralized telecommunication network in Syria. At the time, activists were spread out in local coordination committees throughout Syria and communicated primarily via online tools like Skype, as there was no central Tahrir Square for protests in Syria. Syria has a highly restricted nationalized telecommunications system, as is normal in many countries (even in Europe until recently). Mobile and Internet communications are mostly governed by Syriatel, a company controlled indirectly by the Syrian government as it was owned by Rami Makhlouf, cousin of al-Assad. MTN Syria is the other main telecommunication provider, which also co-operates with the al-Assad regime. Al-Assad had banned social media sites such as Facebook since 2007 as social media was seen as accelerating subversion, although the sites remained easily accessible via various proxies. After the initial “days of rage” in 2011, al-Assad attempted to placate the protests by removing the ban on Facebook and Twitter by passing new laws, but that particular fig leaf was too little too late (Preston 2011).

Even with the opening up of the Internet in 2011, access to knowledge in Syria was shrouded under possible control and surveillance. A government identity card is required to get a SIM card that is capable of Internet access, and the Syrian government can easily control all fiber- optic and landline Internet access. Indeed, when the mosque in Daraa was occupied and the Syrian protest song ya hef (“What a shame”) was blared out to the city, the Syrian government cut the Internet and telephone lines before attacking and killing the protesters occupying the mosque on March 23, 2011 (Anonymous 2016). So, one of the most pressing problems facing any protest movement in Syria was how to communicate. As telephone access was entirely controlled by the government and, thus, likely to be spied upon, using the Internet for communications was the only alternative, but the government could also easily capture any unencrypted network traffic. In response, Syrian activists ended up using corporate American services that provided encryption by default, with Gmail for email communication and Skype for replacing voice communication over landlines. Indeed, the initial Syrian revolution spread its new via YouTube channels such as Ugarit and organized primarily via Skype groups. “At that moment we were using Skype, but we were using fake names and closed chat rooms, to get to know each other” (Anonymous 2016).

Paradoxically, the most damaging act of censorship to Syrian Internet access was provoked not by al-Assad but by the United States government: the sanctions imposed by the United States government on Syria prevented Syrian activists from accessing Google and Skype, banning precisely the ordinary people of Syria who were organizing against the regime. The Syrian government already had access to all the secure communication tools they needed via Iran, but sanctions prevented Syrians from accessing the Google Play Store on their Android phone (and for the minority of Syrians with iPhones, the Apple Store), which was the primary way of installing Skype. The first priority for Bassel was to get access to a free VPN for Syrian activists that would let them bypass the sanctions and regime spying in order to obtain free access to the Internet and install the corporate tools like Skype needed for communication. A VPN provided an encrypted tunnel for Internet traffic from a phone or client server, who then provided access to the Internet through its server. For Syrians, it was important that this VPN server be in a jurisdiction outside the US sanctions. Therefore, a VPN could allow someone in Syria to dial into a server in a country like Germany, install Skype, and communicate quickly and securely via encrypted Internet traffic that would be safe from the surveillance of the Syrian regime.

In February 2012, Bassel e-mailed me asking about access to our VPN that worked with free software, introducing himself as a programmer who “develop software under AGPL as well.”3 In particular, he was excited that it might work to bypass the censorship of both the al-Assad regime and the US sanctions, giving them unfettered access to the Internet. Bassel was worried, as the “vpn never worked on any android” and even if it did work on Android, it could not be installed by Google Play. Luckily, the Bitmask VPN that was deployed by Riseup4 allowed people to download the VPN and install it without Google Play using an APK3 on Android. Bassel was successful in getting it to work after I gave him the access codes to set-up a riseup.net account. Thanks to quick work by one of the system administrators of Riseup, I managed to pass “super-user” access codes to Bassel that allowed him to create accounts for hundreds of high-risk Syrians.

While Bassel could get the VPN working, what was needed was “an apk with vpn working that doesn’t require rooting the device that would be excellent.” Bassel personally had to install the VPN on the phones of his friends in the Syrian social movement by obtaining root access, and he noted that “rooting every different taste of android is pain.” This led to Bassel having the following idea, “so what would be ideal solution is to have some NGO funding some phones with good cameras ... then installing all the stuff on them including vpn.” When I offered to help root the phones at my house in France, as I was already training citizen journalists there and pre-installing their phones and laptops with secure software, Bassel said—perhaps jokingly—that “maybe next time when someone wants to donate some phones should send them to you first.” Of course, how I would then proceed to ship the phones safely from Paris to Beirut was beyond me, and personally freighting them over would likely only get them seized at the airport. Therefore, the only option we had was to send them over with Syrian citizen journalists.

Another concern I brought up to Bassel was that phones inherently revealed both the geolocation of their users and the pattern of communication of who is talking to whom—a phenomena called “metadata.” Metadata is not trivial matter, for as famously put by CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) director Michael Hayden in 2014, “We kill people based on metadata.” In detail, I noted to Bassel that “the VPN should work for data over 3G but you still will have all the geolocation problems inherent in mobile triangulation, so your content will be protected but your location will be revealed.” Bassel was undeterred by this possible threat, as “it’s not a big deal of triangulation since the Syrian gov still very busy and don’t have enough experience to do that.” To summarize, by being thrown off by the revolt, the Syrian government did not have the technical prowess to use geolocation via mobile phone records to target individuals. In order to provide better anonymity than a VPN, I recommended the use of Tor via the Tails operating system, the same system used by WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden, but Bassel said he had not used it and “didn’t test yet.”

Access to the Internet was only the first step in establishing the knowledge needed by the revolution. One common problem was to hide files on laptops that would be seized by the Syrian police. There were even stories of police storming into houses, demanding access to “Facebook,” and taking laptops, believing that the contents of Facebook were stored on the laptop. Though this lack of computer knowledge by the Syrian police was humorous, unfortunately, the contents of Skype address books are stored locally on laptops. At the time, the more technically adept Syrians used mostly Truecrypt, a now discontinued open-source tool, to encrypt files on a computer or laptop, but many did not. The use of advanced security tools on the ground was not widespread, as most people continued to simply use the methods of communication that they had deployed before the Syrian revolution. When I offered Bassel links to information, I recommended Riseup’s security information page to Bassel, which includes information about threat models and advanced security measures.7 Bassel agreed that it was “pretty useful thanks” but that without having a translation in Arabic, it would be of limited utility: “I don’t have time to translate even this should be priority.” Interestingly, due to Internet censorship, simply having the Arabic translation on a website was not enough. During the early stages of the Syrian protests in 2011, printing digital security information on paper to distribute directly to those involved in social movements was the preferred method of knowledge dissemination. As explained by Bassel, “if you ever get those stuff in arabic. will be glad to print and distribute here, since so far this is the best way to reach people here even if the topic is about the Internet.” Although access to a VPN and Skype helped get the Syrian protests off the ground, it would tragically not be enough to let the Syrian social movements endure or even for Bassel himself to survive the coming months.

Like any knowledgeable hacker, Bassel had a strong distrust for corporate tools and so was looking for free software alternatives to the corporate tools used by Syrian activists. However, he understood that people would only use software that was easy to use and install, regardless of whether it was backed by a major corporation. Importantly, Bassel’s time was limited, for as the uprising started to take off in earnest, he had to concentrate on organizing protests and coordinating medical supplies for the self-organized hospitals (going into a state-run hospital was quite dangerous for activists, due to the propensity of the doctors to turn their own patients accused of being revolutionaries in). After all, secure communications were useless, if the protests were a catastrophe and the people involved dead. Yet Bassel demonstrated a clear understanding of the different tools that a revolution would need, from collaborative document editing to an Internet infrastructure that could survive attempted government shutdowns.

The common alternative at the time for encrypted text-messaging and voice calls was TextSecure and Redphone, which were later in 2015 merged into the well-known Signal application (Greenberg 2014). In 2013, these applications only worked on newer Android phones such as the Nexus, but Bassel pointed out that “nexus and above is not that common here ... the other problem is that everyone should install this in order for it to work, which is hard to do.” Also, group voice teleconferences were necessary, and the soon-to-be Signal application did not support encrypted group voice calls like Skype. By 2019, Signal had millions of users and millions of dollars in funding and still did not support group communication. Groups are the fundamental unit of popular organization, not one-to-one organization. More importantly, software aimed at usage for social change needs to be aimed at popular usage, and software that is only designed for newer or more expensive hardware will fail to be used.

One of the still unsolved problems that becomes exceptionally important for organizers is an alternative to Facebook and other mainstream social media that lets them easily share and edit documents like Google Docs. Although decentralization is of interest, even more important is security and tools for self-organization. Bassel was very excited when I showed him the software Crabgrass8 by Riseup that serves as a “Facebook for activists” featuring a “task manager, collaborative document editing, comments, and other neat features.” Bassel said it was “too early for Syrians to use” the Crabgrass software “but totally worth checking” out, and he asked for the “road map for this project” and offered to help as “I develop software under AGPL as well, it’s called www.aikiframework.org just a side note.” However, he was worried about the ability of people to create new accounts and the loss of the network effect of Facebook, so he wanted to “find ways to import data from facebook to it.” The tragedy of this situation is that even today, when now there is widespread concern over Facebook and well-established standards for decentralizing social data, Crabgrass still struggles to find funding and open-source contributors and still does not have a way to import Facebook contacts. Despite billions being put into blockchain technology and millions being put into “Internet Freedom” funds, people across the world are still beholden to Facebook, Google, and other centralized platforms with no security and tools aimed more at corporate organization than the organization. Indeed, it seems that over the last five to six years, very little progress has been made to create an alternative to the Silicon Valley monopolies for ordinary people. The only tools aimed at activists that are significantly used are Signal and Tor.

Wireless and mobile networking in Syria

The last question Bassel asked to hackers outside Syria before his arrest was “do you want to help the Syrian people to connect?” One of the most essential components of Internet access is the physical infrastructure itself: the cables, the towers, the wi-fi routers. In Syria, these are all controlled by forces allied to the regime, and, while encrypted communications such as VPNs allow Internet traffic to be shipped across these enemy lines of communication, the regime could still simply turn them off at any time, as shown even by the initial invasion of Daraa in the first few months of the Syrian revolution. As put by Bassel, “in many cities of Syria the gov shutdown the Internet and by that I mean: ADSL, dial up, 3G and so on.” One possible solution would be satellite Internet that could directly connect to the outside world, but as Bassel put it, “we can overcome such problem by using sat [satellite] Internet but it’s very slow and expensive.” However, while satellite could provide autonomous Internet access, the problem facing Syrian activists was how to communicate not only with the wider world but with each other.

Community wireless was a solution put forward by the Guifi network in Catalonia, free software advocates, with whom I put Bassel in touch. These kinds of networks used niesh networking, where each node in the network can autonomously and directly connect to other nodes to pass traffic in a decentralized manner. Bassel was quite negative about community wireless networks being effective in Syria, as he explained that “even if we say have wifi mesh network, all Internet gateways are down, this mesh network will be isolated since none of its nodes is actually connected to the Internet.” Ruthlessly practical, Bassel continued to note that satellite “can’t be used as Internet sources for ad-hoc networks” due to their high latency and cost. Any usable autonomous infrastructure needed to work on whatever hardware was ubiquitous. And in Syria, the only kind of hardware that was ubiquitous was the mobile phone.

What would an autonomous network look like on the ground in Syria? Given that most people in Syria used GSM-capable phones,9 Bassel reasoned that autonomous communications based on GSM would be the best solution for supporting the revolution as it would seamlessly work with existing mobile phones. Typically, mesh networks were set up using wireless networking based on routers by companies like Ubiquiti, but Bassel thought setting up an autonomous cell-phone network would be possible, as a “a standalone GSM network doesn’t even need any service that the gov provide when we have our own ‘towers’ and infrastructure.” Erecting this autonomous Internet for the Syrian revolution was Bassel’s master-plan: “I’m planning to do is to build a mobile mesh network to provide free GSM to those areas where the gov shut down the communications.” He would then connect it via a satellite link to provide autonomous access to the Internet, although the primary use of the network would be intra-Syria communication that would be free of easy access and control by the regime: A “GSM network at least doesn’t need to be connected with the outside world, or can be connected with slow sat links to enable one or two persons to talk outside at a time, but the main idea is to provide a way for people inside to communicate with each other.”

Bassel envisaged that such a “network can be built using free software like http://openbts.sourceforge.net/ and asterisk with battery powered high gain antennas.” To unpack this, OpenBTS (n.d.) is a free software project that lets off-the-shelf GSM mobile phones serve as end-points for voice-over-IP networks by running an open-source base transceiver station (BTS). OpenBTS implements only the minimal needed portion of the GSM standard in order to get the network off the ground, and then does the rest using digital technologies. This base station in turn delivers calls to an open-source digital version of a telephone private branch exchange (PBX) or mobile switching center (MSG). Asterisk is free software that provides the infrastructure to allow calls to be forwarded to each other locally using Voice-over-IP or even the “backhaul” to traditional phones via the public switched telephone network, as well as providing many features that would be useful to Syrian activists, such as voice teleconferencing.

While the project of building an open-source communication system compatible with GSM may seem impossible, it has already been done at hacker events such as Burning Man in 2008 (OpenBTS 2008). Today, autonomous mobile phone networks based on open-source software serve thousands of people on a scale close to the size of Rojava in the rebellious province of Oaxaca in Mexico, where for decades the indigenous were deprived of mobile phone access by Mexico’s corrupt government-aligned telephone companies. Using the “GSM network in a box” OpenBSC10 and the Linux Gall Router as a private branch exchange, the grassroots Rhizomatica collective created the software that knit together an autonomous GSM network for Oaxaca (Myers 2016). Over the years, the software has allowed previously non-technical indigenous villagers to train themselves in running the open-source tools behind the autonomous network, and today the network has finally been accepted even by the Mexican telephone companies. Importantly, Rhizomatica and its users recognize their open-source telephony project as explicitly radically democratic and, therefore, see the struggles of the people in Syria as parallel to their own.

In the last emails he sent before his capture by the al-Assad regime, Bassel ardently desired this autonomous mobile communication network but noted that “we don’t have enough infrastructure to build this and this is something we totally need help on.” On March 1, 2012, Bassel went silent. I argued over design decisions with various hacker groups, pushing the line that “Bassel is right via the need for an alternative GSM network” but that I “believe we are waiting for news from Bassel about what is wanted.” The news never came. Two weeks after our last communication, on March 15, Bassel was arrested by the military intelligence services of al-Assad while leaving his workplace in Damascus. Later, we found out that he had been tortured for five days and sent to the most infamous prison in

Syria, Sidnaya. His computers and documents were seized, including the archive of Skype chats and likely our e-mail conversations. The truth of how exactly Bassel was identified and captured still remains elusive. There was an unsubstantiated rumor that the Syrian government purchased a “backdoor” into the proprietär)' closed-source Skype software from the Iraqi government, which had originally obtained this backdoor from the United States as a way of tracking down “terrorists.” Regardless, the intentional spread via Skype of malware like “remote access tools” by the Syrian Electronic Army let the al-Assad regime seize files and even control of the computers of Syrian activists (Kaspersky 2014). These digital backdoors were used to identify, track, and eliminate democratic dissents, including Bassel Khartabil.

The people must control their own means of communications

For years, I knew Bassel was alive, but I lost touch one by one with the remaining activists and revolutionaries on the ground. Bassel was transferred originally to the Adra jail in 2012, and he managed to maintain communication with his wife and supporters who helped him to post tweets up until 2015. Bassel was present but not freed when the jail was stormed by the armed jihadi group Jaysh al-Islam, and then he was transferred to an unknown location. His name was removed from the registry of prisoners, and in 2017 we discovered that he had been executed by the al-Assad regime. Although he may have been martyred for the cause of democracy in Syria, his dream of autonomous mobile network lives on. If anything, the tragedy in Syria demonstrates that autonomous access to the Internet is a necessary need of democracy not just in Syria, but throughout the world.

The Syrian revolution, which started as a democratic revolution, was taken over by an Islamist counter-revolution when the Free Syrian Anny (FSA) took control from the populist citizen councils. Given that the destruction of the initial civilian wave that engulfed activists like Bassel, only the armed struggle of the FSA seemed to be able to resist the militarization of the struggle by the al-Assad regime. However, the FSA itself has been overrun and hijacked by groups ranging from the explicitly jihadist Jaysh al-Islam to the Turkish-backed Jaysh al-Nasr, and the chances of these groups supporting an open culture, much less an autonomous open internet for free expression, are slim at best.

Yet the dream of a decentralized and democratic federation Syria lives on far from Damascus in Northern Syria. Even though the Kurds in Northern Syria served as bystanders to the initial phase of the Syrian revolution, after years of war with Daesh by the YPG/YPG (People’s Protection Units), the multi-ethnic Autonomous Administration of North-Eastern Syria (AANES) have established a large swathe of northern Syria, commonly known outside Syria by its Kurdish name “Rojava,” that is under control of popular, directly democratic councils with equal participation of men and women. This form of political organization has been heavily inspired by the turn of Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Part)' (PKK), towards democratic autonomy in 1999. The goal of democratic autonomy is to build a parallel social structure that fulfills the needs of society rather than aiming at the revolutionär)' overthrow of the state.

This democratic revolution in northeastern Syria stands out like a beacon of hope as the rest of Syria descends into chaos, but it is under threat from both the al-Assad regime and Turkey. Caught between these deadly pincers, the people living in Northeastern Syria are in a terrify ingly perilous situation, as all of its access to knowledge via the Internet and communication in general may be cut at literally any moment by either al-Assad or Erdogan. This is no mere hypothetical situation, as Turkcell provides mobile data in the north, while Syriatel still provides internet coverage as well. When Turkey invaded the canton of Afrin that was under the control of the PYD, one of Erdogan’s first actions was to cut off all Internet access and telephone communications in Afrin (SMEX 2018). Even journalists could not communicate, and thus news of the bombings of civilians, looting, and torture could barely get out. The very forces that had led the fight against Daesh in Syria were utterly isolated. Although Basse! may' be dead, the dream of a democratic, secular, and decentralized Syria becomes real again—yet will it be destroyed in part due to the lack of communications infrastructure that was predicted by Bassel before his death?

There have been different attempts to build a free community-based Internet similar to what Bassel imagined throughout the world. The technical barriers to knowledge that exist in terms of mobile telephony do not hold in the development of community' wireless networks, originally envisaged as an alternative to municipal networks that would be politically driven by' the local community' and economically more efficient. Yet why has community wireless not taken off? Unlike mobile telephony, as community wireless is built ground-up based on open-source, it was expected by theorists such as Benkler (1998) that these networks would eventually become the dominant form of Internet provisioning, only relying on fiber-optic to connect to the “backbone” of the Internet.

There has been some limited success throughout the world, ranging from the aforementioned Guifi.net to the Freifunk network in Germany. The open-source software and hardware that drives these networks are mature, but they face up against antagonistic policy decisions. Usually, these decisions make sharing wifi access spots illegal via contracts by the large broadband providers that control cable and fiber-optic line installation; together they have defeated the wide-scale deployment of community wireless. Instead, community wireless networks have only succeeded in either privileged areas with a large amateur base of open-source enthusiasts, such as urban Germany, or areas like rural Catalonia where separatist community-driven politics and the inefficiency and corruption of large-scale providers like Telefonica simply made community wireless nearly necessary to access to the Internet. These networks have a sound and completely open technical foundation that can be deployed at no cost. Instead, in the developing world where it was imagined these community wireless networks would spring forth, large and often nationalized telecommunications companies have crushed them.

This shows the limits of the idea that is common enough in hackers that simply creating open-source software (and even provisioning hardware such as routers) would be enough to enable something to become a widespread practice. The real struggle in providing open access to knowledge has little to do with the availability of open-source but is derived from both antagonistic politics from existing entrenched oligopolies and a local lack of social self-organization.

The importance of communication and access to knowledge based on technology for human liberation far pre-dates the Internet. Take for example the case of the radio. In an exegesis by Franz Fanon (1994), the radio was first viewed as a tool of oppression brought to the country by foreign colonization, and so the locals had no interest in this tool. Yet, when the Voice of Algeria started broadcasting the news of the Algerian revolution, “the purchase of a radio in Algeria has meant, not the adoption of a modem technique for getting news, but the obtaining of access to the only means of entering into communication with the Revolution, of living with it” (Fanon 1994, 83). With the help of this method of communication, the various factions of the revolution were united throughout Algeria, and the reaction of the French secret services was to systematically jam the Voice of Algeria. Indeed, Franz Fanon attributes to the radio the ability to form an anti-colonial struggle across otherwise fragmented people such as the Kabyles: “Having a radio meant paying one’s taxes to the nation, buying the right of entry into the struggle of an assembled people” (Fanon 1994, 84).

Similar to aborted Internet shutdowns throughout the Arab world in 2011, the French radio censorship was ultimately unsuccessful, and the anti-colonial movement for liberation succeeded in Algeria, with similar situations occurring across the world in the 1950s and 1960s. The situation is strangely parallel at this present moment, and, as recognized by the Access to Knowledge movement, the control of communication infrastructure and technological knowledge via closed source and patents is a new form of colonialism in the information economy. Opening up these secrets is needed for genuine liberation, and what is at stake is not technical or economic, but a question of the political creation of a new kind of assembled people that crosses all national boundaries in the same post-Westphalian manner as the Internet itself.

Unfinished conclusions

While imprisoned by al-Assad, Bassel sent out a premonition of such a coming community whose primary ties would be through the Internet:

Of my experience spending three years in jail so far for writing open source code (mainly), I can tell you how much authoritarian regimes feel the dangers of technology on their continuity. And they should be afraid of that, as code is much more than tools. It’s an education that opens youthful minds, and moves nations forward. Who can stop that? No-one ... I’m in jail, but still have thousands if not millions of my hands and minds outside writing code and hacking and they will always keep doing that, no matter what stupid actions these regimes take to stop the motion.

(O’Brien 2017)

In recent years, to shut down the Internet has become a common and devastating strategy for different governments in times of mass protests and social movements. Algeria, Bangladesh, Cameroon, Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, DR Congo, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Mali, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Russia, Sierra Leone, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria, Togo, Turkey, and Yemen: in all these places, access to the Internet was limited or completely closed oft'by the government during mass protests in the year 2018 alone (Taye 2019). In 2019, the same happened in Ecuador (Netblocks 2019c), India (Netblocks 2019d), Iran (Netblocks 2019a), Iraq (Netblocks 2019b), and Sudan (Netblocks 2019e). According to Access Now, an organization fighting for free Internet access, the Internet has been shut down completely or partially in 29 countries (Access Now 2019).11 Whether or not Bassel’s dream for open access to knowledge lives or dies with him is now in our hands.

While the future of Syria and even the Internet itself may appear dark, there are reasons to be hopeful for access to knowledge. The Syrian social movements were at first limited to the nation, and while based in existential demand for dignity, politically they were limited and unorganized. Thus, it should be no surprise that regressive Islamist factions eventually usurped the Syrian revolution in the south of Syria. Yet in the north of Syria, the autonomous administration of Rojava is putting into practice a new post-Westphalian political ideology that is capable of explicitly taking on the political task of social self-organization of autonomous Internet access.

The Autonomous Administration of North-Eastern Syria (AANES) is built on democratic confederalism, where

policymaking is exclusively the right of the popular community assemblies based on the practices of participatory democracy. Administration and coordination are the responsibility of confederal councils, which become the means of interlinking villages, towns, neighbors, and cities into confederal networks. Power thus flows from the bottom up instead from the top down.

(Bookchin 2015, 71)

This form of popular self-organization is remarkably compatible with autonomous Internet access and mobile telephony. The technical infrastructure community can be controlled by the local community and networked over disparate and diverse communities in a bottom-up form, with the technical form of the network mirroring the social form of the democratic councils. Given the current chaos in Syria in terms of telecommunication and law enforcement, the main necessary ingredient to deploying an autonomous Internet is precisely the kind of social self-organization and political will that is provided by local councils based on democratic confederalism. Imagine if for every local democratic council in a village, there was within an economics or technology committee with the knowledge to control their own local mesh network or open-source mobile telephony base station, with this knowledge available to all via regularly offered trainings.

Although autonomous access to the Internet may have not reached realization in 2012, the dying dream of Bassel Khartabil may be reborn in Syria. Such access to the Internet was just not a priority in the YPJ/YPG’s initial war against Daesh. With tensions rising with al-Assad and the shutdown of the Internet in Afrin by Turkey, AANES is keenly aware of the technical necessity to implement such an Internet access program as both a tactical short-term necessity for survival and as part of a longer strategy to rebuild a new democratic Syrian economy. Over the last few years, AANES has paid for new fiber-optic cables to be laid down throughout northeastern Syria, and the provisioning of a new mobile telephony company, called RCell, to be an autonomous competitor with TurkCell and Syria tel. RCell SIM cards are available throughout Rojava that provision data services, and during the October invasion in 2019 by various Islamic and Turkish-backed “Free Syrian Army” forces, often RCell continued operating against all odds.

Bassel’s dream for autonomous, self-organized Internet lives, even if his specter remains in our nightmares. If the correct steps are taken to build a social foundation that goes beyond merely the technical components of routers and base stations to include basics such as the translation of the technical knowledge into the local language and long-term self-organization for the maintenance of the infrastructure, what happens—or could have happened—in Syria becomes of prime importance in the world. Although the experiments with democratic technical knowledge have just begun in AANES, it bodes well that this is even possible given the precarious politics of northeastern Syria.

Similar to the case put forward by Fanon in the remarkable case of the sudden mass adoption of the portable battery-powered radio due to its being tied to the anti-colonial struggle, access to knowledge of technical infrastructure could lead to a new radically democratic form of development. Countries and regions on the periphery of capitalist development, where the people are viewed as being left behind by technology developed in the core, are capable of “finding short-cuts and of achieving the most modem forms of news-communication without passing through the intermediary stages” (Fanon 1994, 83). A new form of politics based on the democratic control of knowledge and technology can fulfill Fanon’s prophecy that “a disparity between the people and what is intended to speak for them will no longer be possible” (Fanon 1994, 97). Innovation in the kinds of technical tools and practices needed for democracy could be invented by necessity in places like Syria, given the collapse of their traditional infrastructure. This kind of knowledge would then be invaluable in the future, as no country is immune to crisis.

The first people to adopt democratic self-control of their own communication and knowledge infrastructure will serve as a model not only for other countries of the periphery, but also for core countries in North America and Western Europe that have monopolized technical development so far. Putting such ideas into practice would also lead to a deeper understanding of democracy in an increasingly technical age. One of the understandable blank spots in the philosophy of democratic con-federalism is a lack of a practical plan for technical infrastructure, including but not limited to Internet access. Access to knowledge is a necessary but not sufficient condition for freedom. As access to the Internet is a vital part of our collective social affairs today, putting Internet access and eventually all technical infrastructure under democratic control is necessary for political autonomy. As put by Ocalan (2017, 284), “When communities are able to represent themselves and act on their own behalves concerning all their affairs, then they can be said to be democratic.” This will require opening up the obscure knowledge of Internet protocols and the proprietary information of mobile telephony to be accessed by all. One step can be done by following the path of Bassel Khartabil. By working for the creation of free software for autonomous access to the Internet, programmers can play a small but vital role in the reconstruction of a new political project that goes beyond Syria: the awakening of a democratic civilization.

Notes

  • 1 I would like to thank Dan Gorman for introducing me to Donnatella and Bassel in particular, and to Idil Onen and Seraf Kavak for organizing the workshop “Parallel Displacements: The Syrian Civil War & Kurdish Migration in Turkey, 2015-2018" on May 24, 2018 at the University of London Institute in Paris where I presented an earlier version of this writing.
  • 2 For example, on August 1, 2011 it was reported in Asharq Al-Awsat that the military that defected against Bashar al-Assad said “we announce the formation of the free Syrian army to work hand in hand with the people to achieve freedom and dignity to bring this regime down, protect the revolution and the country’s resources, and stand in the face of the irresponsible military machine that protects the regime.”
  • 3 AGPL stands for Atfero General Public License and is a free software license.
  • 4 Riseup is an organization that provides communication tools for people working on social change (Riseup n.d.).
  • 5 APK is an abbreviation for Android Package Kit, a tool which allows installation of software without using Google Play.
  • 6 As quoted in “The Johns Hopkins Foreign Affairs Symposium Presents: The Price of Privacy: Re-Evaluating the NSA.” Video. Accessed September 30, 2019. https://www. youtube.com/watch?v=kV2HDM86XgL
  • 7 Riseup’s security info page provides info under https://help.riseup.net/en/security.
  • 8 For more information on Crabrgrass, see https://we.riseup.net/.
  • 9 Global System for Mobile (GSM) Communications is a telephony standard developed primarily by large European telephone companies.
  • 10 OpcnBSC is the open-source implementation of a base station controller (BSC), which is upstream of the base station transceiver of OpenBTS (Rhizomatica 2015). For details of Rhizomatica’s technical work, see https://wiki.rhizomatica.org/index.php/System_Architecture.
  • 11 The Access Now website also lists Algeria, Bangladesh, Benin, Cameroon, Chad, China, Democratic Republic Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Liberia, Malawi, Mauritania, Myanmar, Pakistan, Russia, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, United Kingdom, and Zimbabwe.

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7

THE UNITED STATES AND GOVERNMENT-PROVIDED INTERNET ACCESS

 
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