Tech by VICE

Five Years After Revolution, Internet Censorship Is Creeping Back into Tunisia

The Tunisian government still sees the internet as a battleground five years after the revolution.

by Kouichi Shirayanagi
Dec 1 2015, 11:00am

Tunisians using computers and phones in an Orange store. Photo: Hamza Ben Mehrez

Tunisia has made great improvements in promoting a culture of internet freedom in the five years since the Tunisian Revolution.

Unfortunately, internet activists are saying that the climate of fear and self-censorship is starting to creep back—and unless the Tunisian Parliament passes new laws protecting free speech on the internet, the country's internet freedom could regress in the coming years.

Before the revolution in January 2011, the North African country of approximately 11 million was governed by a tightly controlled dictatorship led by President Zine El Abeddine Ben Ali.

The internet had been introduced to the country in 1996 and its use exploded in the subsequent years. However, the regime administered a deep packet inspection (DPI) system, a sophisticated technique that uses software and hardware to interfere with web traffic. When a data packet is identified as matching the criteria set by the central censor, a variety of actions can happen. Most common would be blocking the transfer of information, but DPI technology can also delete or modify words in a text or insert other content instead of what the recipient was looking for. The Tunisian DPI censorship system was considered a perfect example of how the internet could be controlled by a central authority.

The old regime censored websites administered not just by terrorist groups, but by the entire political opposition. Bloggers who reported any news that the regime considered threatening had their blogs censored. The regime also censored video sharing sites such as YouTube and Dailymotion. For a short period, the regime recorded the Facebook login information of Tunisian users. All pornographic websites were also censored. The Tunisian Internet Agency or Agence Tunisienne d'Internet (ATI) would leave messages reading "Error 404" on censored websites as if the sites never existed. In 2008 Reporters Without Borders noted that emails sent to activists from human rights organizations became illegible upon arrival. Once the filtered emails were opened, they disappeared from inboxes entirely.

Post-revolution internet policy in Tunisia is critical because the country is an example for a freer society in the rest of the region

Since the revolution, the ATI has transformed. The changes are encouraging. Moez Chakchouk, who took over the agency after the revolution, traveled widely to many conferences speaking as an open-internet activist until recently when he was named as the head of the Tunisian postal service. He also presided over the end of the agency's monopoly over internet exchange point services, installing important internet infrastructure locally for two Tunisian telecommunications companies Orange and Tunisiana. This effort made costs lower for internet service providers and allowed private companies to take over a share of the market.

The post-revolution ATI has censored a few Facebook posts critical of the country's army and has complied with court orders to censor pornographic websites, but it no longer blocks websites en masse.

However, Tunisian activists are saying censorship has morphed into new forms. Now, rather than overt censorship from a central authority where websites are blocked, some individuals have been targeted by other governmental institutions for what they have posted on the internet.

A new agency, the Tunisian Technical Telecommunication Agency (ATT), was set up by governmental decree in November 2013 without public scrutiny. The agency has no oversight, and has surveillance and meta data collection abilities according to Hamza Ben Mehrez, a lead policy analyst with the Internet Governance for the Middle East and North Africa program of Hivos, a Dutch development agency.

This new agency works with the Tunisian Ministries of Interior, Defense, Human Rights, and Justice "to work on judicial prosecutions against internet users and hackers who might threaten state security," said Ben Mehrez.

In other words, the Tunisian government still sees the internet as a battle ground to go after some users that officials believe are violating the law, but enforcement is less centralized. Government mechanisms are in place to put further restrictions on the internet at any time, however. The government has said the primary targets for internet surveillance are terrorism suspects.

Repressive laws from the Ben Ali era remain on the books and also continue to threaten internet freedom. Article 86 of the Telecommunications Code states that anyone found guilty of "using public communications networks to insult or disturb others" could spend up to two years in prison and may be liable to pay a fine. During the Ben Ali era, the law was selectively enforced to imprison journalists and political opponents of the regime.

Articles 128 and 245 of the penal code also punishes slander with two to five years imprisonment. Article 121 (3) calls for a maximum punishment of five years in jail for those convicted of publishing content "liable to cause harm to public order or public morals." These laws have been used to punish some political speech on the internet.

In July, Mouhab Toumi, a man living on the country's southern island of Djerba, was arrested for a Facebook post he made criticizing the competence of the President in 2012. Police from the Interior Ministry who arrested him asked him if he wanted to kill the President and also asked if he supported ISIS. He was brought before a judge in August where the judge dismissed the case against him.

In December 2014, authorities arrested Tunisian blogger Yassine Ayari for claiming the national military leadership was corrupt on Facebook. Ayari was released in April although he had been sentenced to a year in prison.

"Toumi's case as well as Ayari's are examples of how the government is telling us that they are still watching over us," said Yosr Jouini a student at INSAT, the country's largest engineering school. "The problem now is that we don't know who is doing what. People in government agencies don't know their limits."

As Tunisia has no democratic tradition, the biggest challenge to getting restrictive laws changed is organizing a strong enough public constituency that will push for change. Jouini said that there is no tradition of discussing internet policy with the public. "We don't have classes on these topics at INSAT, people have to be active in looking for ways to find out about these issues," Jouini said. The lack of public education on issues of internet governance allows the country's large internet providers to get what they want from the country's parliamentarians with little public complaint.

In fact, some forms of censorship in Tunisia has been purely for the purposes of economic interests. Jouini said there is a competing interest between the public's needs and the needs of the large internet providers. These competing interests don't often make satisfactory policy for most internet users. In October 2014, the three largest telecom companies in Tunisia blocked calling apps such as Skype and Viber from being used over their 3G networks, claiming that the apps congested traffic. Jouini said it was much more likely that users were using calling apps to get around paying for phone service to the telecom companies.

As the first Arab country to have a successful revolution, post-revolution internet policy in Tunisia is critical because the country is an example for a freer society in the rest of the region. The Tunisian government has come a long way in making the internet a more open exchange of ideas and commerce since the days of dictatorship five years ago. Recent events however, have shown that the Tunisian Revolution did not make the Tunisian internet totally free—and without constant effort and advocacy by Tunisian internet users to keep the internet free in Tunisia, the direction internet freedom has been going in the country could reverse.