Fighting censorship on principle

Tunisia could set an example for the region by standing against internet censorship.

constituent assembly
Tunisia's government could set an example for free expression by refusing to re-install internet filters [EPA]

San Francisco, CA – When Tunisia hosted the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in 2005, the foreign guests in attendance caught a firsthand glimpse of the extent of Ben Ali’s repression. As Ethan Zuckerman recalled last year, a workshop – entitled Expression Under Repression – was cut from the programme by Tunisian authorities, who chained the doors to the meeting room. Though the meeting was later revived after pressure from the Dutch government, its attendees were closely monitored. It was later reported that some Tunisian human rights activists were beaten by government thugs. At the time, Zuckerman recalled a fellow participant declaring: “it’s our duty to be sure that we’re all watching Tunisia, not just during this summit, but afterwards”.

Over the course of the next five years, however, Tunisia was routinely pushed to the backburner by major players in the free expression community in favour of countries like China and Iran. Even US government actors – despite Secretary Clinton’s mention of Tunisia in her 2010 remarks on Net freedom – seem to have focussed their efforts on the two countries, funding circumvention tools developed with China in mind. In 2010, Tunisian activist Sami Ben Gharbia questioned what he perceived as the US government’s failure to target online repression in Tunisia, Syria, and Vietnam, to which a former government official responded by acknowledging that the US “pays more attention to countries that have nuclear weapons than to those that don’t”.

Fortunately, today Tunisia is in a different place. Along with the fall of Ben Ali quickly came the fall of online repression, and by mid-January 2011 the Tunisian internet was more open than ever before. The Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI) was quickly transformed from a place of fear into a hopeful contender for Tunisia’s main internet exchange point, or IXP, its aim to become a neutral player. 

That openness, however, was not without challenge: in May, a military tribunal ordered the blocking of several Facebook pages, a move quickly followed by a civilian lawsuit demanding the blocking of pornography. The ATI, under the leadership of CEO Moez Chakchouk, has stood staunchly against the order, fighting the decision through a series of appeals that resulted on Wednesday in the country’s highest court deciding in favor of the ATI and sending the case back to the Court of Appeals.

For many, it might seem strange that a relatively conservative, Muslim country like Tunisia would fight to keep pornography accessible on the Internet, but in Tunisia, that fight is justified by experience: Under the rule of Ben Ali, it wasn’t just obscene content that was unavailable to citizens, but political opposition websites, information on human rights, and even YouTube.

As a result, Chakchouk – as well as many Tunisians – are wary of letting the government force the ATI to re-install the same tools that allowed such overreaching censorship to happen in the first place. As Chakchouk himself has argued: “It’s not a matter of pornography or not, it’s a matter of whether we have censorship or not in Tunisia.”

The collateral damage of online censorship

“The re-implementation of a filtering system could create a slippery slope in Tunisia.”

Indeed, installing a system like the one previously used by the Ben Ali government (which was, incidentally, built by American company McAfee, owned by Intel) would leave the ATI vulnerable to further government demands. And while Chakchouk is prepared to censor individual URLs by legitimate court order (as was the case with the Facebook pages), he opposes broader filtering mechanisms, saying: “If there is to be Internet control in Tunisia, this control should be smart, transparent and for security reasons.”

Although censoring pornography might not bother the majority of Tunisian citizens, censoring social networks certainly would, as evidenced by the street protests that occurred when the government briefly blocked Facebook in 2008.

It’s not only the government Tunisians should worry about, however. The filtering software used by many governments, companies, and parents to block online content is imprecise. A ban on a sexually explicit word or phrase, for example, could result in unrelated, innocuous content being blocked, a problem regularly suffered by the English town of Sussex.

In other words, the re-implementation of a filtering system could create a slippery slope in Tunisia, where politics remain a delicate balance.

An example for the region

For Chakchouk, it’s not just about Tunisia. He believes that Tunisia, which set an example for the region in 2011 when its citizens took to the streets to overthrow a dictator, should set an example for free expression as well.

Fortunately, the country is well-poised to do so. Just a little more than a year after Ben Ali fled, Tunisia is largely stable, its citizens poised to ensure the freedom they fought so hard for remains intact. It has not suffered the stop-and-start heartbreak of Egypt, nor the explosion of violence taking place in Libya. In fact, to speak to some members of the activist community, it would seem as though the real problem for many now is apathy. In order to effectively ward off the spectre of censorship, Chakchouk says, “civil society must be as active as it was during the regime of Ben Ali”.

As of now, the fate of the ATI hangs in the balance. The decision issued Wednesday by the Court of Cassation is big, but it’s not final. However, the ATI has won other cases against censorship orders, so it’s possible they’ll win this one too. And if they do, they will have set the bar high for the rest of the region’s nascent democracies.

Jillian C York is director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. She writes a regular column for Al Jazeera focusing on free expression and Internet freedom. She also writes for and is on the Board of Directors of Global Voices Online.

Follow her on Twitter: @jilliancyork