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#KeepItOn: Syria must end internet shutdowns during national exams

Read in Arabic / للقراءة بالعربية

As part of the #NoExamShutdown campaign, we’re sending an open letter to authorities in Syria to abstain from resorting to internet shutdowns during exams, and committing to #KeepItOn.

Access Now, SMEX, the Internet Society, and the undersigned civil society organizations and members of the #KeepItOn coalition — a global network of over 300 organizations from 105 countries working to end internet shutdowns — call on all relevant authorities in Syria to end their long-held tradition of imposing internet shutdowns during exams, and desist during the national exams scheduled between May and June, 2024.

Since 2015, Syria has repeatedly imposed widespread internet shutdowns during school exams to prevent students from cheating and stop questions from getting leaked. This practice not only violates international human rights law, but deepens Syrian authorities’ abysmal human rights record, tightening their draconian grip on the digital sphere. 

Regardless of the rationale, internet shutdowns serve to entrench the Syrian regime’s dangerous digital authoritarianism. Since 2011, Syrian authorities have implemented a highly repressive cyber policy, using a state-controlled internet and telecommunications infrastructure to brutally silence dissent, disrupt communications, conduct mass surveillance, and disseminate pro-regime narratives. The passage of a new cybercrime law in April 2022 only bolstered this control, criminalizing freedom of expression and restricting the free flow of information under the guise of combating cybercrime and misuse of technology. 

Connectivity is already tenuous. In the past, authorities have responded to protests by throttling internet access, and have recruited “independent volunteers” to support their authoritarian agenda, including through hacking. Making matters worse, the ongoing war in Syria and damage to infrastructure continues to disrupt telecom services, particularly in rural areas. This makes it extremely difficult to provide connectivity, leading companies like MTN Group to exit the Syrian market.

Internet shutdowns during exams have not only proven to be largely ineffective, they undermine Syria’s economy, damaging all businesses that rely on a stable internet connection, directly or indirectly. This is extremely harmful, considering that by mid-2023, over 90% of Syrians lived below the poverty line, with more than half the population unable to access or afford quality food, and at least 15 million requiring humanitarian aid. Syrian economists are raising the alarm, noting  in particular that shutdowns block access to banking services, warning, “without connection, the banking sector suffers.” 

It’s imperative that Syrian authorities find ways to prevent cheating that respect people’s rights, without negative impacts for entire populations . Yet while the former Minister of Education, Darem Tabbaa, publicly promised to end exam shutdowns as of the academic year 2021-2022, Syrian authorities have nevertheless continued this practice.

Internet shutdowns are always an attack on human rights. Based on Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), disrupting internet access restricts people’s communication, self-expression, and access to vital information, violating the fundamental right to freedom of expression. The international community widely condemns shutdowns, as indicated by United Nations Human Rights Council Resolution 47/16 and consecutive UN resolutions, which call out “the use of internet shutdowns to intentionally and arbitrarily prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information.”

In a recent report on internet shutdowns, the UN Human Rights Council goes further, exploring the impacts on a broad range of  human rights and urging authorities not to impose shutdowns. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has also stressed that “switching off the internet causes incalculable damage, both in material and human rights terms,” while “the costs to jobs, education, health, and political participation virtually always exceed any hoped-for benefit.”

Internet shutdowns are neither necessary nor proportionate under human rights law. Article 4 of the ICCPR allows states to “take measures derogating from their obligations under the Covenant to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.” According to the UN Human Rights Committee, this requirement should reflect “the principle of proportionality, which is common to derogation and limitation powers.” In other words, “any derogation measure shall be such only as is strictly necessary to deal with the threat to the life of the nation and is proportionate to its nature and extent.” Internet shutdowns disproportionately affect all users and unjustifiably limit access to information and emergency communication services during critical times, making them disproportionate by default.

This year, internet shutdowns were accompanied by the shutdown of mobile telecommunications. It is an indication that limiting access is expanding to different technologies, and that internet shutdowns are not the right tool to address cheating. In light of Syria’s long-established history of wielding internet shutdowns during major national events and their broad detrimental impact on the population, we urge the authorities in Syria to #KeepItOn and end this costly, ineffective, and disproportionate measure, particularly during exams.

Signatories

SMEX

Access Now

Internet Society (ISOC)