DAMASCUS- Abdullah, a 28-year old student, said he had decided to join Facebook only on Wednesday, having been discouraged before by the ban and the slow speed of using proxies.
The move to lift the ban, which was implemented at the end of 2007, was unexpected. It came as massive protests have swept through Egypt and Tunisia, ultimately forcing out both leaders. Those protests were partly fueled by social media, underscoring the growing power of youth in those countries and the high expectations they have about connecting to each other and the rest of the world via the Internet.
While Facebook was instrumental to uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, the Syrian government's confidence has been bolstered after calls for protests here last weekend on Facebook failed to transform into action.
In one of the ubiquitous Internet cafes in Damascus's Old City, young Syrians pored over music videos and film clips on YouTube. "It's great being able to stream videos more quickly," Ahmed, a teenager, said.
Since the government lifted its ban Tuesday on the social media site—and on Facebook and Twitter—Google has reported a huge spike in use. Along with games sites such as online poker and chat forums, the social media sites are a popular form of entertainment with Syria's burgeoning youth.
The ending of restrictions comes after Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, said he would push for change in the wake of the region's unrest.
While some Syrians view the lifting of the ban as a public-relations stunt, the response among the majority of young Syrians is the kind of enthusiasm the government was seeking.
Mazen Darwish, head of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, which was shut down by authorities in 2009, said he cautiously welcomed the move to give open access to social media sites. "It is only a small gift to the people, but I am very happy if it signals that the mentality here is changing and people are being trusted," he said. "We will have to wait to see."
Social media such as Facebook have been widely used by the country's urban youth despite the illegality. They are accessed via proxies that route Internet requests through servers outside of the country, bypassing the government's firewall and concealing IP addresses. The government is believed to monitor Internet browsing and trawl sites including Facebook to enforce its ban.
Indeed, critics in Syria expressed fear that ending the ban would act to tighten controls by encouraging people to go online via domestic servers, which would allow for easier monitoring of their online activities.
They point to the tightening of controls a week earlier on programs such as eBuddy, an interface used for mobile access to Facebook, and an increased blocking of Internet proxies and the sites providing them.
Nonetheless, if the trend in the Arab world is a reliable guide, Facebook use in the country is likely to rise. A report on social media in the region released last month by the Dubai School of Government found that the total number of Facebook users in the Arab world grew by 78% last year, reaching 21.3 million users by December 2010, 75% of whom were aged 15 to 29.