Tunisia’s taste of internet freedom

From the ashes of one of the worst crackdowns in Tunisian history rise the first prospects of internet freedom.

The Tunisian president’s promise of internet freedom was greeted by celebrations on the streets [Reuters]

Like many of its neighbours in the region, Tunisia has long approached the internet as a force to be censored. 

Tunisians are barred from accessing a wide variety of sites, from the seemingly innocuous YouTube to sites providing information on human rights in their country.

Yet, in a surprising speech in which Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the Tunisian president, announced that he will not run again for office, he also promised something long hoped-for by Tunisian netizens: Internet freedom. And shortly after the promise was made, it came true as popular sites like YouTube and Dailymotion were made available to the public.

Though their newfound online freedom was met with cheers, some Tunisian activists – many of whom have made digital activism part of their repertoire despite pervasive filtering – are treading cautiously. Still others suspect it will not last.

The extent of Tunisian censorship

Since the OpenNet Initiative (ONI) began documenting Tunisian internet filtering in 2005, the organisation’s research shows an increase in the number of blocked sites over time, with continuing crackdowns on social media, dissident blogs and opposition websites.

The ONI’s 2010 report found that Tunisia filters several categories of content pervasively, placing it on a level with China and Iran. Furthermore, the country uses American filtering software SmartFilter (owned by McAfee, which was recently bought by Intel) to accomplish their filtering goals.

Tunisia is also considered to be amongst the world’s most dangerous places from which to blog; a 2009 report by the Committee to Protect Journalists placed it just after Vietnam and Saudi Arabia.

‘The most expensive website ever’

Whether or not the online freedom lasts, many Tunisians see the move as a facade, brought about to quash ongoing unrest in the country. 

One Twitter user called YouTube “the most expensive website ever”, alluding to the fact that the dozens of Tunisians who were killed in the unrest did not die for net freedom. Still another reminded followers that Mohamed Bouazizi did not set himself on fire because he could not get onto YouTube.

Nevertheless, if the filtering were to remain off, Tunisians would indeed have access to many of the tools that have been undeniably useful to them during the past few weeks.

Blogger and researcher Ethan Zuckerman notes that, just as in the post-election events of Iran in 2009, Tunisians have flocked to Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms in order to get news, photos and videos out of the country. The ability to do so was particularly important in light of the mainstream media’s apparent inattention to Tunisia.

Tunisians also had plenty of assistance from the rest of cyberspace, from attacks instigated by Anonymous to journalists and bloggers helping disseminate the news.

Beyond filtering

At the same time, internet filtering is not the only means of control exercised on Tunisian netizens. 

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, there is evidence to suggest that over the course of the past few weeks, the Tunisian government has been phishing passwords of its own citizens on sites like Facebook and Gmail in order to access their content, contact lists, and other personal information.

Bloggers are also under constant risk; according to Threatened Voices, two Tunisian bloggers are currently imprisoned. Twenty-three bloggers are deemed to be “threatened” for their online activities. 

Nevertheless, just a few short hours after Ben Ali’s speech, it was announced that bloggers Slim Amamou and Azyz Amami, arrested during the unrest, had been freed.

Why it matters

Although, as many Tunisians have noted, this is only the first step toward a democratic ideal, freeing up the country’s internet and media would go a long way toward balancing the reality of life in Tunisia with the perception of the country in the West.

As activist Nasser Weddady remarks: “What is remarkable is how Tunisia successfully imposed draconian censorship, and yet remained seen as a progressive regime in the West, and France in particular.”

Freedom of expression is not a clear path to democracy, however: One need only look to Egypt or Algeria to see how a populace can be effectively controlled while simultaneously placing relatively few limits on speech.

Though today the demonstrations continue, Tunisians can celebrate a small victory knowing that their voices will be heard.