Syrian Boycott of Mobile Telecoms
In 2009, OpenNet Initiative deemed Syria to have the most heavily regulated and least-developed telecom system of the Middle East countries, and critics claimed that this regulation served to squash the competition that would have resulted in lower rates and enhanced services for the consumer.   Further, the 38% mobile phone penetration rate lagged far behind the MENA region average of 75%,  in large part due to the lack of incentive to expand to the rural regions of the country. Despite a population of nearly 2 million citizens, customers only had two options in terms of providers: privately owned Syrian-based Syriatel (which accounted for 55% of all users) and South African-based MTN Syria (which accounted for the remaining 45%). With the GDP per capita in 2009 remaining steady at $4700, the $50 a month 3G service subscription was too expensive for many citizens. Though $3.25 calling cards were also an option, they were set to disconnect 7 days after activation, forcing many users to pay for services they could not use.
The government-imposed tariffs (the highest in the region) requiring the providers to pay 50% of revenue to the state in part explained the high prices customers were forced to pay for service, but critics also voiced suspicions of corruption within the Syrian telecom industry. It’s worth noting that in 2008, the U.S. Treasury Department blacklisted Syriatel by adding the provider to its Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List. The Department asserted that Rami Makhluf – who owns the majority share of the telecom company – “uses his access to high-level Syrian Government insiders to enrich himself at the expense of the Syrian people.”
A fed-up customer encouraged his friends to stop using their phones for one day in hopes of raising awareness of the problem and ultimately bringing down the cost of operating a mobile phone. The movement quickly caught on as bloggers began circulating the following message:
“Boycott Mobile Phones on 1 June 2009. Contribute with us in the national campaign to lobby the telecom companies to lower the bills to become similar to neighboring countries.”
The Tools and Tactics
The word continued to spread as supporters posted the message on their Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. As one Syrian man Tweeted, "I Like this Mobile Boycott campaign, and I'm spreading it around (offline) it would've been better if it were for more than one day." Another blogger wrote, “The most important thing is that the youth feel that we're all one hand, regardless of religion or sects, we must unite to improve our situations ... since the improvement is for us all.”
The Stumbling Blocks
Admittedly, not much seemed to change after the first boycott. The people still felt, however, that if they united around the cause, change would happen. A year and a half after this initial boycott, irritated customer Amer Ashouri created a Facebook group that attracted more than 17,000 members, calling for another boycott. Members agreed to discontinue cell phone use for one hour every day between February 9 and February 20, 2011. Another Facebook group promoted a boycott in protest of the two providers’ blocking of mobilechat services.
Nadim Trastiro, a creator of one of the Facebook events, reported that “the companies lose SYP 50 (USD 1.08) per person, per day. If 10,000 people boycotted their mobiles for 20 days, the companies might lose up to SYP 10m (USD 217,000),” demonstrating the impact the boycotts have on the companies. While neither Syriatel nor MTN Syria formally acknowledged the boycotts, in March 2011, Syriatel did decrease the price of a minute of call time from SYP 8 (USD 0.17) to SYP 6 (USD 0.13). Further, the international attention paid to these instances may encourage the Syrian government to reconsider its telecom policy. In fact, in August 2010, the government announced that it would allow a third provider to enter the market, hopefully allowing the citizens to realize better services and lower prices as a result of the increased competition.