Syria Quietly Turns on Web 2.0

A Syrian man connects on his Facebook account at an internet cafe, in Damascus, Syria, Feb. 8, 2011.
Syrian Facebook user
A Syrian man connects on his Facebook account at an internet cafe, in Damascus, Syria, Feb. 8, 2011.
This story was filed by CBS News' George Baghdadi in Damascus.

Syrians can log directly onto Facebook and YouTube for the first time in three years, without going through proxy servers abroad to bypass government censorship.

The authorities, however, had issued no statements by Thursday to explain this week's surprise move, which followed a failed attempt to rally thousands for a "day of anger" protest against the Syrian government in Damascus -- a call by opposition leaders to mirror events seen in Tunisia and still unfolding in Egypt.

The online campaign against Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad fell flat when no protesters showed up in Damascus or other Syrian cities. But rights groups and information-hungry Syrians are praising the government's quiet decision to let the flood of social networking wash over the nation.

"Finally the government has realized that they should sometimes be positive," wrote one Syrian Facebook user. "They understood that Syrians are rallying behind their leader, who was the only one who said 'no' to the U.S."

"I am glad. They are really giving us now a further push. We know they trust the new generation," continued the posting.

An aide to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton welcomed Syria's decision as a "positive move", but voiced concern that users could run new risks in Syria, where there is no specific freedom of expression.

The websites blocked in Syria -- where at least 240 sites could not be accessed -- spanned a whole range of content, with the most strict filtering imposed on sites critical of government policy or openly espousing opposition view points.

Repressive legislation and the imprisonment of journalists and bloggers

have led many Syrians to engage in self-censorship online.

The Syrian government approved a law near the end of 2010 -- which still awaits parliament's rubber stamp -- that could seriously curtail the country's online media, which has generally enjoyed greater freedom than the traditional print outlets.

Media rights watchdog Reporters Without Borders painted a bleak picture of online media freedom in Syria in a July report, describing it as "one of the more repressive countries" in terms of Internet censorship.

Under Facebook's terms of service, users are required to use their real identities and not hide behind false or anonymous accounts, a violation that can lead to Facebook closing an account.

According to D-Press, a pro-government Syrian Web site, there are about 200,000 Syrians currently using Facebook.

Abdulsalam Haykal, a leading Syrian technology entrepreneur, praised the government's decision to lift the ban as a reflection of a commitment to build confidence among the country's young people.

"The power of social media is an important tool for increasing participation, especially by engaging young people," he said.

Assad, a 45-year-old British-trained eye doctor, told The Wall Street Journal last week he would push through political reforms this year, including an attempt to initiate municipal elections, grant more power to non-government organizations and establish a media law.