Transforming Tunisia’s internet agency

Al Jazeera speaks to the head of the Tunisian Internet Agency, who is on a mission to make the body more transparent.

mansion of ATI
‘We have to ensure [the ATI’s] neutrality and its transparency,’ says Moez Chakchouk [Yasmine Ryan/Al Jazeera]

TUNIS, Tunisia – It was a historic moment when the head of Tunisia’s once-notorious internet agency spoke to a room full of the Arab world’s leading bloggers.

Moez Chakchouk, the head of the Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI), won enthusiastic applause and gasps from a crowd of bloggers for his speech on Monday, October 3.

Chakchouk has clearly done something right since taking over the ATI on February 21.

The ATI, more than internet agencies elsewhere in the Arab world, was an integral part in the power structure of the ousted Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime.

Most of the former directors of the ATI later held top political positions under Ben Ali.

The agency’s building was Ben Ali’s house in the 1980s, and Chakchouk’s office was the deposed leader’s living room.

Al Jazeera’s Yasmine Ryan speaks to 36-year-old Chakchouk, who is on a mission to transform what was one of the world’s most repressive internet agencies under Ben Ali into a transparent and accountable body.

Yasmine Ryan: It must be a very challenging position since you took over the ATI?

Moez Chakchouk: I was in the former ministry when a presidential decision was made to restructure the internet. And restructuring the internet means restructuring the ATI. So the [decision to restructure the ATI] was made by Ben Ali just before the revolution, on November 7, 2010. Because I was the advisor to the minister at the time, I was involved in this file and I know all the issues.

Then we had the revolution and everything stopped. The censorship equipment was switched off, because Slim Amamou [a prominent blogger who joined the government after the fall of Ben Ali’s regime] was minister at the time.

At the same time, we had problems inside [the] ATI. It had been very close to the regime, and people here had many of their rights overlooked.

The problem was also because a lot of people, politicians especially, said that we need to destroy [the] ATI. And at that time, I tried to explain that [the] ATI has to remain as an internet exchange point, and we have a lot of things to do. But that idea wasn’t really understood by a lot of people.

So that was a challenge to explain to people that [the] ATI is an internet exchange point, and that we have to ensure its neutrality and its transparency.

“I’d never spoken with any blogger before, I’d worked for the government for 14 years and I was always afraid 

– Moez Chakchouk

We have to communicate, and the ATI was not an institution that communicated before so it was difficult for us. We had to open our doors and talk with NGOs and bloggers.

I’d never spoken with any blogger before, I’d worked for the government for 14 years and I was always afraid. 

The first thing was to act rapidly. We opened the door and created a Facebook account and a Twitter account; it was very important for us to communicate with the electronic community.

YR: You have been working with bloggers, seeking them out as partners, do you feel they have been receptive to what you have been trying to do?

MC: It wasn’t easy, because first they have to trust us. And this was the main challenge.

When I obeyed the order coming from the military court, asking to block some Facebook pages, that was the most difficult thing for bloggers and the online community.

Because just one week before, on the radio, I’d explained that the ATI won’t censor anything because there is no regulatory framework regarding that. And I explained that we just activated our equipment for schools because the ministry of education had asked us to.

But at the same time, we had those orders. And you know the situation in Tunisia at that time, and still, [it] was a state of emergency. And those were orders from the court and not the military itself. I explained through Twitter at that time that [the] ATI had no choice, we had to do it.

The issue is not just blocking those sites, it’s about saying to those people that you can’t just say things about harming the military, because this could incite people to violence.

After that, the lawyers [involved in the May case] brought a case to court saying the ATI has to filter all the pornography sites. This is difficult for us, because if we start to rebuild our equipment to filter pornography, we will filter again and again and it won’t stop.

We refused this decision and announced that we would appeal. And I think at that point [the online community] started to trust us, and said, ‘okay, ATI is going to be the defender of freedom’. But I’m defending the ATI, I’m not an activist. 

I’m here defending the ATI as an internet exchange point, and my role is to defend the transparency and the neutrality of the ATI regarding any content. 

It’s not a matter of pornography or not, it’s a matter of whether we have censorship or not in Tunisia.

We want to transform. We already started to transform our equipment. We’ve already begun to stop all our investments in equipment. So we cannot go back.

I’m here defending the ATI as an internet exchange point.

– Moez Chakchouk

We tried to explain to the court [during the initial hearing] that that was the wrong decision, firstly because it’s not based on the law, and that ATI doesn’t have the same means to do censorship that it used to have, because we’ve stopped the equipment and investments into keeping it going.

The issue of pornography can be tackled in a different manner, because ISPs could offer parental control software. But [the ATI] cannot directly censor.

It is the first time that I see a decision that there is no reference to law, it is unbelievable.

That is why I still have hope to win the appeal at the highest court in Tunisia.

YR: So ideally you won’t be executing orders to censor any pages? What does national security mean now?

MC: National security doesn’t mean censorship. We help the court to carry out orders. We are doing that now, in a transparent manner and according to the existing law. We agree that these issues need to be resolved in a different way, after the election, because we need more laws on this issue. Internet has to [have specific legislation] because it is not a [news] media. All these issues have to be tackled in a different way in the future.

The internet users that want to block pornography could choose that option from the ISP, but as an option, not in the global manner like before.

We cannot today activate all the equipment at the right capacity to block those sites as it was done before. The company that was doing that is asking for more money, and we don’t have the money, it is very difficult.

Censorship equipment is not able today to censor. All sites are open today, despite the order by the military court and the pornography sites. We don’t have the means [to obey court orders].

YR: And what about surveillance?

MC: We do not monitor [internet] users. It was not the ATI. We do not have the right information about who was doing that. Bloggers say it was cyberpolice. But I don’t know. We know that some people were in charge of that. They used our equipment.

After the revolution, we cut off the access from the outside. Nobody could use the ATI equipment to do surveillance or censorship. Before, ATI was just a technical machine, maintaining and operating the equipment; that was it. The orders came from the ministries or the presidential palace, we don’t have those papers.

We just have the orders from the president to buy certain equipment, and to pay the money. We have all the contracts with the confidentiality articles.

YR: Yesterday at the Arab Bloggers Meeting you were speaking about Tunisia as a testing ground for foreign censorship and surveillance technology. Can you explain?

MC: Yes, Tunisia was the first country to establish those systems. We have a lot of equipment here that is not our equipment. Who has come and installed it? This was a partnership between ATI and those companies.

The technology itself is great, but you have to use it in the right way.

YR: And what is going to happen to the information stored on Tunisian internet users?

“The technology itself is great, but you have to use it in the right way.”

– Moez Chakchouk

MC: We don’t have any information. As explained, the equipment was here in our centres but operated from outside. Maybe it is stored on our files right now, but we don’t have access because maybe it is encrypted. The people who had access before erased it.

We are ready, if people want to investigate these issues and how it happened. But we cannot do it alone.

YR: You mentioned the testing of deep packet inspection technology in Tunisia?

MC: We have usual censorship equipment that was developed in Tunisia with that company. There were a lot of bugs, but they were fixed over the years. There are still bugs in the technology but we are still working with the company, because we are filtering for governmental institutions.

YR: Which company is it?

I cannot say the name, sorry.  Because we have a confidentiality agreement. But if tomorrow the government says it wants to stop the contract and investigate all these contracts … This is not just my decision. It’s the decision of the new government of Tunisia.

YR: Are there any technologies that you can talk about?

MC: I can talk about SmartFilter, because SmartFilter was bought indirectly from McAfee, an American company. SmartFilter was bought in 2002 and we’re still using it. We have renewed our contract with SmartFilter, but through other companies. So the company that provides our DPI equipment has a contract with SmartFilter. That’s why I don’t have a confidentiality agreement with SmartFilter.

That equipment evolved. They started with caching systems and then developed more sophisticated technologies.

YR: Why is that contract continuing if there is no censorship?

MC: We renewed the contract because we are still filtering for governmental institutions.  If you google “pornography” here in the ATI right now, you will be stopped. For schools, hospitals, governmental institutions and internet cafes, we filter.

We just use local filters with a small capacity. For the whole country, we need larger equipment, with greater capacity. And that equipment hasn’t been maintained.

YR: Why has the government subsidised the development of these technologies?

MC: Censorship equipment is not something that is ready-made. It is something that was developed for the country. Ben Ali’s regime was constantly asking for things to be blocked or different ways to block them. So you have to work with the company to fix those bugs. 

And then, after a period of time when that product is ready, that same product is sold to other countries.

Our censorship equipment with SmartFilter is now sold to other countries in the Middle East – Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia … To a large extent, that technology was developed in Tunisia.

YR: You’ve probably been following the recent exposes on surveillance technologies – Amseys in France, Nokia-Siemens in Bahrain, BlueCoat in Syria. Were any of these used or developed in Tunisia?

MC: We cannot say the name of the companies and the technologies that were used by the Tunisian regime.

But if the government has the will to show or to investigate through an independent commission, we are ready.

Source: Al Jazeera