As the situation in Iraq descends into further chaos, the beleaguered government has sought to block communication among insurgents, and their propaganda to the world, by imposing harsh restrictions on Internet access.
The crackdown, naturally, also affects journalists and regular Iraqis working to keep the world informed about what’s happening on the ground.
A censorship order from the Ministry of Communication last week was quickly followed by announcements from Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube that users in Baghdad and the surrounding area had their service disrupted. A document from the ministry posted on Facebook Monday indicates that another crackdown will shutter the country’s five largest Internet service providers, pushing five provinces offline completely.
The ISPs, according to a Daily Dot translation of the document, are instructed to cut all access to Anbar, Diyala, Kirkuk, Ninewa, and Salahuddin provinces -- which have all largely slipped out Baghdad's control, either to ISIS or the Kurds -- along with 11 other areas where the fighting has been heaviest. The government also ordered that the ban on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Skype be reinstated while new bans are placed on Tango and Instagram.
Many of those areas are outside the government’s control, however, making it possible for Internet users remain connected via alternative sources like satellite links or fiber-optic lines from ISPs in surrounding countries. Perhaps in anticipation of such subversion, the ministry also ordered the ISPs to block any virtual private networks (VPNs) during the hours from 4 p.m. to 7 a.m. local time.
Members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria have dominated the online conversation online by posting graphic images of heavily armed fighters committing what appear to be mass executions. The situation became even more alarming last Wednesday when former U.S. Army Spc. Alex Horton tweeted an image of an ISIS fighter next to a pile of guns beneath a charging station for an AN/PRC-153 radio.
The radio has been used for years by American infantry throughout Iraq and Afghanistan because, by encrypting communication over UHF channels, soldiers and their commanders are more easily able to coordinate with each other.
The same image, according to the Washington Post, also shows a VHF radio that can be used for longer-range communication. The Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System (SINCGARS) was popular with U.S. troops in the Middle East and, if it's indeed using it, ISIS must have somehow gotten hold of the encryption key. Doing so would either require knowledge of the technology or cooperation from Iraqi police forces, which have popularized the use of the SINCGARS.
Along with gruesome images depicting the violence, ISIS insurgents have taken to Twitter and Instagram to post photos of themselves unmasked and of their weapons. Twitter has banned a number of ISIS-affiliated accounts, with many journalists and pundits combating the propaganda with more balanced insight.
Mohama Najem (@MoNajem) - the founder of SMEX.org (@SMEX), which describes itself as an advocate “for a free and open diverse and dynamic Arab Internet through training, organizing, and localizing media empowerment” – has consistently tweeted updates in both Arabic and English on the changing Internet situation.
Similarly Hayder Al-Shakeri (@HayderSH), an advocate of Internet freedom, has been able to get online from Baghdad, where he’s tweeted messages such as, “Another beautiful morning from #Baghdad. Heading to work in the hopes of coming back again. #Iraq”