illustration of pixelated test taker

It's exam time in Syria — and that means internet shutdowns

As hundreds of thousands of Syrian high school students sit to take national exams, their government is taking an extreme proctoring measure: shutting down national internet access. 

Syria’s authoritarian regime has long kept a tight grip on the country’s internet access via government-affiliated Syrian Telecom, which controls the primary routes web traffic can transit in and out of the country. Internet shutdowns became common during the ongoing Syrian Civil War — but have been deployed in the country for years to prevent academic misconduct. 

How well Syrian students do on their final high school exams is a primary factor in what higher education options they can access — defining the economic futures of many. That puts a lot of pressure on students and even family members who may be looking to help the next generation gain whatever advantage possible amidst years of conflict. 

“The stakes for the exams are so high and there’s an assumption that everyone is cheating,”  said Doug Madory, director of internet analysis at Kentik. 

Prior to Syria implementing the exam blackouts, “questions would begin appearing on social media 30-60 minutes before each exam, thus allowing cheaters to circulate correct answers and compromise the integrity of the test,” Madory wrote in a 2016 blog post chronicling what’s believed to be the first round of Syrian academic internet outages. 

The way the exam blackouts typically operate in Syria is by blocking fixed line and mobile internet access in the hours before the exams as paper tests are printed and physically distributed across the country. Mobile service remains down while students take the tests, according to Madory. The recent outages appear to be implemented by taking down the routes that announce how internet traffic comes into the country, he said. 

Local state-funded outlet Syria TV noted the outages are happening again, despite Syria’s education minister saying last summer they would be canceled in the coming year. 

Syrian Telecom also announced the outages on Facebook. The posting describes four outages, each scheduled to last three and a half hours, to correspond with different exams. International web-watchers have already observed the first two this week on Monday and Thursday.

Further outages are planned for June 6 and June 12.

But Syria isn’t alone in going offline for academics. 

Iraq drew criticism from digital human rights groups for ordering local internet providers to shut down during school exams in the summer of 2015. And the trend is continuing, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa. According to an Access Now report released last month, similar tactics were also deployed in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, and Sudan in 2021. 

Academic-related internet shutdowns have also been reported in India. More than 25 million people faced a mobile internet shutdown in the Indian state of Rajasthan last year during a local teacher eligibility exam, according to CNN. This year, a local court stayed a similar internet suspension order in West Bengal state set to coincide with school exams.

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Andrea Peterson

Andrea Peterson

(they/them) is a longtime cybersecurity journalist who cut their teeth covering technology policy at ThinkProgress (RIP) and The Washington Post before doing deep-dive public records investigations at the Project on Government Oversight and American Oversight.