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Lebanon's illegal internet boom sparks crackdown and calls for reform

While some politicians say illegal internet threatens security, users worry that a crackdown is a pretext to keep a state monopoly in place
The only legal provider of internet in Lebanon is a state-run company that some experts say keeps faster, illegal internet attractive (AFP)

BEIRUT – With some of the slowest and most expensive internet speeds in the world, Lebanon has become a hotbed for illegal internet providers that supply people desperate to get their hands on internet speedier than the state-run company, Ogero - the only legal provider. According to a recent study, the internet in Lebanon is slower than Egypt and Syria. 

Illegal internet is a practice that has caused headaches for authorities who have long feared that sensitive state information may be vulnerable to potential enemies, including Israel, and lose the country millions of dollars in revenue.

But after an extensive network of illegal internet providers – or ‘ISPs’ – were discovered throughout Lebanon last month, showing that the practice has grown more advanced than imagined and that the government itself was using it, authorities seem to have had enough.

“Official government institutions had been unknowingly using the illegal internet providers,” Lebanese Telecommunications Minister Boutros Harb told reporters after the revelation.

Just how many Lebanese internet users had tapped into the illegal network and who they were is unclear. A Lebanese government official, who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorised to give comments, said there are no estimates or accurate figures.

“Some try to speculate that the dismantled illegal network served only some corporate and government offices and no individuals. However, this is not certain,” he said.

The illegal system – which ran off devices and towers in isolated locations - was able to offer higher speeds, at significantly lower rates than Ogero, with bandwidth purchased from overseas, namely Turkey and Cyprus. In response, Harb called on the countries to “stop attacking Lebanon”.

Harb, a member of the March 14 alliance, a coalition known for its anti-Syrian government stance, and Hassan Fadllah, the head of the Parliament’s media and telecommunications vommittee and a member of the March 8 alliance which includes Hezbollah, claim that the ISPs are an Israeli “espionage plot”. Further, they link the network back to a high-profile web of ISPs uncovered in 2009 which had alleged satellite links to Israel.

But internet users, other politicians and even a source within the country’s Telecommunications Ministry said they believe national security is being used as a pretext to keep the state’s monopoly – including its high prices - in place.

Al-Barouk connection

In 2009, the now infamous “al-Barouk network” – a complex system of illegal devices which allegedly had satellite links to Israel - was discovered in the town of Al Barouk in the Shouf district of Mount Lebanon. At least five people were arrested in connection with the network, a source in the Telecommunications Ministry told MEE. 

The network, he said, was “very technologically advanced,” but like the recent system discovered, it was not clear to authorities how the necessary equipment made it into the country unnoticed.

In the past few weeks, both Harb and Fadllah have publicly connected the al-Barouk network with the recent system discovered, but have not elaborated exactly on what the connections are.

But other politicians are doubtful.

“If it wasn’t for conflicting interests between the gangs of thieves, which the Telecoms Ministry is aware of, this issue would not have surfaced,” Walid Jumblatt, Progressive Socialist Party leader, told the Daily Star in late March.

“How did it fall outside [state authority] and how did it return, and why is it after years of piracy and smuggling has this issue just been made clear?”

That’s a question many Lebanese internet users are asking. Some say they believe the government is building up the threats against the country’s security to keep services poor and government pockets lined.

‘Gold wires’

In recent years, Lebanon ranked at 151 in the world for internet download speed. The average internet speed, according to a recent study, is 1.6 megabytes per second.

In Europe, places like Norway reach 14.1 megabytes per second. The illegal internet networks that have been operating provide a bandwidth of 40Gb per second divided across their Wifi networks. This is approximately a third of the capacity set by the Telecommunications Ministry, Harb said last month

A technology adviser to the ministry, who spoke to MEE on the condition of anonymity, said that he is deeply sceptical about the crisis.

“What makes the officially supplied internet in Lebanon the most expensive in the world by pure comparison to all internet subscriptions? Does the internet being supplied in Lebanon run through gold wires? Or perhaps sapphire wires?” he asked sarcastically.

“No, quite simply copper. There is no justification for the high prices other than that it’s turning a profit for the government.”

When MEE asked the adviser why the interest in Lebanon was so slow, he said: “No one has a clear answer. It’s almost as if the government itself doesn't know why the government is refusing faster internet. Some say it's technical problems, which I doubt. Until now, the Lebanese people, and even I as an expert, have not received an authentic reply or persuasive answer on why they won’t release more speed.

“Espionage can happen internally too. We have a Lebanese militant group [Hezbollah] who can spy on networks under their control in areas where the government has almost no control.” He continued: “Espionage is taking place, and not only from Israel, so sending arrows in one direction might be to confuse us, and not look the other way.”

Minister Harb has openly dismissed any connection, and has asserted that the government will not lift its control on internet services. 

But the government adviser said he believes if the state cannot supply reliable internet and attract proper investors to improve infrastructure, it should open up the field to competitors.

“If the government can’t understand this equation, then they should free the sector and allow it to grow as an important pillar of our economy,” he said.

Jonny Habash, a local activist involved in the You Stink campaign that targets corruption and cronyism in the country, and blames authorities for the mounting rubbish crisis that has seen litter collections stop and many of the country’s dumps close, agrees.

“We are not getting value for our money,” he said. “We pay more than most other countries in the region for our internet, and in return get one of the lowest quality services.”

Growth market?

As long as frustrations mount and accusations fly, illicit internet providers look likely to keep popping up.

Ayman Hussein, who said he has worked with illicit internet providers, told MEE that it remains surprisingly easy to establish and access the illegal networks.

“News spreads by word of mouth [in] rural villages, but depending on your area, a simple Wifi scan in Beirut is enough to bring up a telephone number to call on your screen,” he said.  “You call the number, and they will come and install it for you.”

The practice, he acknowledged, is “definitely illegal, but many will keep doing it anyway.

“The underground market will continue, despite actions taken [by the government]. Not only in rural areas or villages where the official internet is limited, but in the capital Beirut too.”

The technology adviser to the Telecommunications Ministry said Lebanon’s internet demand has grown massively since 2000 when the country had 30,000 users. “Around 80 percent of Lebanon’s 4.4 million people are using the internet, and they all demand faster internet and cheaper quotas,” he said.

The easy access to the illegal ISPs is in sharp contrast to the difficulty of accessing Ogero’s services, which only further fuels popular resentment, he said.

“I live in Achrafieh, which is central Beirut, but when I submit for a subscription with Ogero it takes 21 days to connect the new line and two months to connect the DSL [digital subscriber line that connects the computer or router],” he said. 

“Why does it take so long? Simply, I don’t know and no one gives a clear answer.”