DAMASCUS Syrian users of Facebook said on Friday the authorities had blocked access to the social network Web site as part of a crackdown on political activism on the Internet.
"Facebook helped further civil society in Syria and form civic groups outside government control. This is why it has been banned," women's rights advocate Dania al-Sharif told Reuters.
"They cut off communications between us and the outside world. We are used to this behavior from our government," said Mais al-Sharbaji, who set up a Facebook group for amateur Syrian photographers.
There was no comment form the government, which has intensified a campaign against bloggers, virtual opinion forums and independent media sites in recent months.
Syria has been under emergency rule since the Baath Party took power in a 1963 coup. No public criticism of the party and the powerful security apparatus is allowed. Scores of dissidents have been jailed over the past year.
Thousands in Syrian use Facebook to communicate with relatives and friends abroad. The social network also links groups with political and cultural interests. Syrians who have pages on the site include businessmen with links to the ruling class and pro-government commentators.
Ammar al-Qurabi, head of the National Association for Human Rights, said little independent political content published by Syrians on the Internet is now tolerated.
"We have asked officials and they said Facebook could become a conduit for Israeli penetration of our youth, but the real reason for blocking the forum because it provides for criticism of the authorities," Qurabi said.
"There is now an 'Internet political crimes' ward at one prison. Internet cafes have been required to limit their communications services," said Qurabi.
Activists who have published Internet articles are often summoned for interrogation and several have been arrested. Dozens of sites have been banned for what officials deem as subversive activity.
Even Microsoft Hotmail is regularly blocked. There is no access to scores of newspapers on the Web, such as the Lebanese daily an-Nahar and al-Quds al-Arabi, which is published in London by veteran Palestinian journalist Abdel-Bari Atwan.
The Internet started spreading in Syria only when President Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father, Hafez al-Assad, in 2000. Bashar held the title of head of the Syrian Computer Society before becoming president.
(Reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis; Editing by Sami Aboudi)