Freedom on the Net
The internet was first launched for public use in Tunisia in 1996, and the first broadband connections were made available by the end of 2003. Since the traditional media under the Ben Ali regime was censored and tightly controlled by the government, the internet was used as a comparatively open forum for airing political and social opinions and an alternative platform for public debates on serious political issues. As internet penetration continued to grow, however, the regime responded by creating an extensive online censorship and filtering system. In 2009 and especially in 2010, censorship expanded and became increasingly arbitrary. Even websites with no political or pornographic content were censored, and hundreds of blogs as well as several online applications such as the photo-sharing site Flickr and video-sharing site YouTube were blocked.
The Tunisian internet landscape changed dramatically in 2011 after the extraordinary series of events that began with the self-immolation of the unemployed fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi on December 17, 2010. Widespread protests against the autocratic rule of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali ensued, fueled in no small part by online citizen journalism on social media sites such as Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook, as well as various blogs. This in turn led the government to increase its efforts to dismantle networks of online activists, hack into their social networking and blogging accounts, conduct extensive online surveillance, and disable activists’ online profiles and blogs. Remarkably, the repressive censorship apparatus largely dissipated with Ben Ali’s fall on January 14, 2011.
Since the end of Ben Ali’s 23-year rule, Tunisia has been in the midst of a democratic transition. The country held its first democratic election in October 2011, leading to the appointment of 217 members of the Constituent Assembly of Tunisia in charge of writing a new constitution. In the meantime, however, a number of laws from the Ben Ali era remain on the books that restrict freedom of expression online, including those under the Telecommunications Decree and the Internet Regulations that hold internet service providers (ISPs) liable for third-party content, require ISPs to proactively monitor internet activity, and ban encryption technologies, among other restrictive provisions. While these laws have not been enforced in the post-Ben Ali era, their continuing existence remains a threat to the country’s precarious internet freedom. Concerns have also emerged over the return of censorship with the initiative to block online pornography launched in 2011, which was ultimately overturned by the courts. Finally, the conviction of two Tunisians in March 2012 for publishing online content perceived as offensive to Islam and public morality prompted serious concerns among free expression advocates.
Internet usage in Tunisia has grown rapidly in recent years, even as access remained restrictive under the Ben Ali regime. According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), internet penetration in Tunisia stood at 39.1 percent in 2011, up from 13 percent in 2006. Although the government has actively sought to improve the country’s information and communication technologies (ICTs), access is still hindered by high prices and underdeveloped infrastructure.
The popularity of mobile phones is also on the rise, with over 12.3 million mobile phone subscriptions and a penetration rate of 117 percent in 2011. Nonetheless, mobile internet connections are rarely used, since mobile phone companies purchase internet access from existing ISPs and the cost remains beyond the reach of many Tunisians.
State-controlled Tunisie Telecom and the country’s third mobile phone company Orange Tunisie, which launched in May 2010, provides 3G internet service through a plug-in USB key that enables laptops to connect to the mobile network. The device costs 69 dinars (approximately US$43), while the service costs 30 dinars (US$18.50) per month. Tunicell launched a second 3G mobile service in August 2011, offering up to 42 Mbps. In early 2012, the government issued a tender for a new 3G and landline license won by the telecom operator Tunisiana—a development that will likely increase competition in the broadband market, deploy the 3G network to rural regions of the country, and create a more open internet ecosystem.
Under Tunisie Telecom, which manages a national backbone bandwidth capacity of 60 Gbps, every internet subscriber must buy a landline package before choosing an ISP. Internet subscription prices range from 10 dinars (approximately US$6) a month for a connection speed of 1 Mbps, to 50 dinars (US$31) for a connection speed of 20 Mbps. On top of this cost, the subscriber must also pay the ISP for the same speeds, ranging from 10 to 25 dinars (US$6-15). Although there are no legal limits on the data capacity that ISPs can supply, the bandwidth remains very low, and connectivity is highly dependent on physical proximity to the existing infrastructure.
Tunisia has one of the most developed telecommunications markets in the region, with 11 ISPs supported by a nationwide fiber-optic backbone network, over which the state-controlled Tunisie Telecom has a de facto monopoly. Previously, there were five privately-owned ISPs—Planet Tunisie, 3S Globalnet, Hexabyte, Topnet and Tunet; however, Topnet was acquired by Tunisie Telecom in June 2010, and the telecom operator Tunisiana took over Tunet in September 2011. In addition, since the country’s regime change in January 2011, 25 percent of the formerly-private Tunisiana has reverted to state ownership through the confiscation of shares held by Ben Ali’s son-in-law, Sakher El Materi. Tunisia’s interim authorities also seized a 51 percent share of Orange Tunisie that was formerly held by another son-in-law of Ben Ali, Marwan Ben Mabrouk.
The Ben Ali regime attempted to increase access to ICTs by investing in infrastructure to improve connectivity and by promoting competition among ISPs to lower prices. In 2004, the government set up an initiative to encourage widespread computer use by removing customs fees and creating the Family PC concept, which promoted ownership of a personal computer for each family. Authorities set a price ceiling for computer hardware and arranged loans at low interest rates for families to purchase the necessary equipment. The program also provided an internet subscription with every computer sold. Unfortunately, the project did not achieve the intended results, and computer prices remained relatively high—about 700 dinars (US$432)—even with the government incentives. Still, the number of computers per 100 inhabitants rose from approximately 12 in 2009 to 15 as of December 2011, and more banks are granting Tunisians special loans to buy computers.
Although many people are unable to connect at home, the previous government claimed that universities, research centers, laboratories, and high schools have a 100 percent connectivity rate and that 70 percent of primary schools are connected. Most Tunisian users access the internet at their work or at privately-owned cybercafes known as “publinets,” where one hour of connection may cost up to 1 dinar (US$0.62). Before 2011, wireless access in cafes and restaurants was not permitted by law, which allowed only licensed ISPs to offer access to the network (free or paid). After the revolution, free access without any identification or registration requirements has become very common in cafes and restaurants in urban cities, attracting youth who use wireless internet on their laptops to connect to social networks. Nevertheless, the law restricting wireless internet provision remains on the books as of early 2012, putting those businesses that provide wireless access at risk of violating the law if the regulator decides to apply it.
Today, Tunisian users enjoy access to various internet services and applications, including free blog-hosting websites. Under the Ben Ali regime, however, many social media applications such as Dailymotion, YouTube, Flickr, and Wat TV were systematically blocked by the government. Software that allows voice calls over the internet were also prohibited, but web-based applications like Skype and Google Talk that provide Voice over IP (VoIP) and other such services were nevertheless accessible under Ben Ali. The social-networking site Facebook was temporarily blocked in 2008, and some groups, profiles, and video links within the application were inaccessible thereafter. Furthermore, the private internet connections of some journalists, activists, and political bloggers were often cut ostensibly due to “technical problems,” or speeds were reduced to hamper their ability to view sites and post information. Certain accounts on the Twitter micro-blogging service were also blocked. When protests broke out in December 2010, online articles covering the events of the unrest in foreign media outlets, including Al-Jazeera, the BBC and France24, were heavily censored.
After the revolution, applications that had been systematically forbidden were unblocked, and social-networking sites such as Facebook became immensely popular, with the number Tunisian accounts reaching nearly three million users as of May 2012.
The Ministry of Communication Technologies is the main government body responsible for ICTs and became a major shareholder of the three telecom operators after the revolution and subsequent expropriation of the shares connected to the Ben Ali regime. Under Article 7 of the Telecommunications Decree (carried over from Ben Ali), ISPs must obtain a license from the Ministry of Communications in order to deliver internet services.
The National Instance of Telecommunication (INT) is the regulator for all telecom and internet-related activities and has the responsibility of resolving technical issues and disputes between actors. The INT governance body and president are nominated by the ICT minister and come mainly from government ministries and agencies, which activists argue is unfair and has led to a lack of independence. Nevertheless, the INT has initiated some positive change in internet policy, namely through the introduction of a new more liberal domain name chart and by inviting independent arbitrators from technical and civil society to develop a new Alternative Domain Name Dispute Resolution Process.
Internet policy is decided by the INT and executed by the Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI), a state agency governed by a board of trustees comprised of representatives from the main shareholder, Tunisie Telecom, and other government-owned banks. The ATI manages the internet exchange point (IXP) between national ISPs that buy connectivity from Tunisie Telecom; it also manages the Domain Name Server (DNS) of the national country code top level domain “.TN” and the allocation of internet protocol (IP) addresses. Formally an integral part of Ben Ali’s power structure responsible for implementing the regime’s internet censorship and filtering system, the current ATI under the leadership of Moez Chakchouk has taken steps to become a more transparent and accountable body, although some issues of censorship still remain (see “Limits on Content”).
Under the Ben Ali regime, Tunisia had one of most repressive internet censorship apparatuses in the world that employed three main techniques as part of its internet control strategy: technical filtering, post-publication censorship, and proactive content manipulation. When the country rose up in mass protest following the self-immolation of the fruit stand vendor Mohamed Bouazizi on December 17, 2010, the government increased its online censorship efforts, blocking more than 100 Facebook pages related to protest events along with online articles covering the unrest in media outlets such as Al-Jazeera and the BBC. While video and photo-sharing websites such as Flikr, YouTube, and Vimeo were already permanently blocked in the country, photos and videos on Facebook became inaccessible.
In the immediate aftermath of Ben Ali’s fall on January 14, 2011, the interim government stopped censoring the internet, and all web content became freely available with a few exceptions. On January 21, the Ministry of Technology and Communications stated that there would be partial censorship on sites that “offended public decency, through violence or incitement to hatred.” In an apparent effort to promote openness, the Ministry’s statement also provided an email address (email@example.com) to which citizens and civil society could send claims concerning issues of freedom of expression online. Nevertheless, there was still a lack of transparency over the process by which censorship decisions would be made and which sites would be blocked.
While the technical filtering strategy employed by the ATI was also officially abandoned after January 2011, concerns arose over the return of filtering in May 2011 when the Tunis Permanent Military Tribunal ordered the removal of five Facebook pages based on charges of defamation against the military and its leaders. According to the Ministry of Defense, the Facebook pages of “Jalel Brick,” “Youssef patriote,” “Takriz,” “Ouajih Badreddine,” and “Tunisie Toujours” had published video clips and circulated comments and articles that aimed to destabilize the trust of citizens in the national army and spread disorder in the country. Two of the Facebook pages were ostensibly known to have promoted violence against security forces on several occasions. In a departure from its non-transparent past, the ATI published a list of the pages affected and the reasons for being filtered. Many in the Tunisian internet community were outraged by the censorship, fearing the return of “Ammar 404,” the codename Tunisian bloggers gave to the ATI’s censorship apparatus under Ben Ali. Some netizens, however, defended the military’s actions as a legitimate effort to condemn violence.
During the Ben Ali regime, the protection of children and society against pornography was the first argument used by the government to justify the necessity of internet filtering and censorship, with the ATI employing SmartFilter software to limit access to specified content. This argument surfaced again on May 26, 2011 when the Tunis Court of First Instance ordered the ATI to block pornographic websites in response to a complaint from lawyers that the sites were a threat to minors and the country’s Muslim values. The ATI pledged to oppose the blocking order, but its appeal was rejected in August 2011, prompting the agency to take the case to the highest appeal court. In a positive step forward, the Court of Cassation overturned the Court of Appeal decision on February 22, 2012 on the grounds that the ATI lacked the technical capacity to implement the filtering system mandated by the blocking order. However, the justification in support of the appeal was not based on rights to freedom of expression or the principles of open internet, thus leaving open the possibility of future censorship as technologies for filtering internet content continue to develop.
Furthermore, while the Tunisian government no longer employs systematic online censorship, many internet users have expressed concern over the continued existence of the former censorship apparatus and its risk of being reinstated. Moreover, two laws remain on the books that govern the liability of ISPs over ICT activities: Decree no. 97-501 of 14 March 1997 (the Telecommunications Decree) and the Regulations of 22 March 1997 (the Internet Regulations). For example, ISPs are held liable for third-party content under Article 1 of the Telecommunications Decree. Article 9 of the Internet Regulations further requires ISPs to actively monitor and take down objectionable online content, retain archives of content for up to one year, and turn over all archived content to the ATI “without delay” if an ISP closes down.
Self-censorship among online users dissipated rapidly with the fall of Ben Ali and the opening up of the internet in Tunisia. Citizen journalism on blogs and Facebook pages have proliferated and become a powerful source of critical reporting on any single event. “Facebook Admin” and “Blogger” have even become full-time paid jobs, especially during the election period in October 2011 when political parties counted on online mobilization to build their support base. Nevertheless, as the country continues to transform politically, self-censorship may be occurring on sensitive topics such as religion or among those associated with the former regime and ruling party.
Since the December 2010 revolution, numerous online sources of information have been launched alongside new newspapers, radio stations, and television channels, all of which are enriching the information landscape and diversity of viewpoints in Tunisia. By May 2011, the Ministry of Interior had granted 51 licenses for new newspapers, and the High Independent Instance for Audiovisual had approved 12 new radio stations and six new TV channels.
The abundance of information online has led to some cases of information manipulation by partisan interests, although the practice is far from as pervasive as under the Ben Ali regime, which proactively worked to shape public opinion online. For example, there is strong suspicion that the ruling Islamist Ennadha party in Tunisia has employed a digital army of young activists and bloggers tasked with managing Facebook communities and propagating an “info war” to disseminate partisan content. Nevertheless, the unprecedented openness of the Tunisian internet sphere in the post-Ben Ali era has greatly diluted the influence of such content, and there is at present a more positive trend of politicians using social media tools to engage the internet populace rather than manipulate.
Following the tremendous success of social media in launching the revolution and ousting Ben Ali, individuals and organizations have continued to use online tools for initiatives relating to political and social issues. For example, the Internet Society in Tunisia (ISOC) has partnered with other youth associations to launch a successful online crowd-sourcing platform, which allows citizens to participate in election monitoring using SMS and online tools to report incidents related to the elections process. Another platform, Mejlis.tn (meaning “assembly”), was launched to post recorded videos of the Constituent Assembly sessions as well as information on law projects and members of the assembly work. Social media continued to mobilize activists and protests throughout the year, including the major protests on March 20, 2011 for Independence Day and on April 9, 2011 for Martyrs Day.
Article 8 of the old Tunisian constitution under the Ben Ali regime guaranteed “freedom of opinion, expression, the press, publication, assembly and association… according to the terms defined by the law.” Nevertheless, such constitutional protections did little to prevent Ben Ali from limiting freedom of expression and censoring the internet. After the 2010 revolution, the old constitution was annulled and in October 2011, the Constituent Assembly of Tunisia was elected to develop a new constitution within 12 to 18 months. In December 2011, the assembly adopted a provisional constitution (known as the “Small Constitution”) to guide the country’s executive, legislative, and judiciary bodies until a final constitution is written. The process of drafting the new constitution began in February 2012. Many civil society activists and human rights advocates have called on the Constituent Assembly to enshrine freedom of information and the right to access the internet in the country’s future constitution.
While the internet opened up dramatically after Ben Ali’s fall from power, the repressive laws that enabled the government’s censorship apparatus still remain, leaving open the possibility that freedom of expression online could be restricted again. For example, Tunisian law still allows the government to censor internet content that is deemed obscene or threatening to public order, or is defined as “incitement to hate, violence, terrorism, and all forms of discrimination and bigoted behavior that violate the integrity and dignity of the human person, or are prejudicial to children and adolescents.” Furthermore, the Tunisian Press Code (Act No. 1975-32) states that charges of defamation can be punished by imprisonment from one to three years with a fine of 120 to 1,200 dinars (US$74 to $740). Articles 245 to 249 of the penal code also punish slander with two to five years of prison.
During the revolutionary events of December 2010 and early January 2011, several bloggers and online activists were arrested or disappeared for their online activities but were released after Ben Ali’s fall. Despite vast improvements in internet freedom that followed, there have been several instances of prosecution against bloggers and online users. In early 2012, for example, blogger Riadh Sahli was charged with defamation for posting on his Facebook page a press release sent by demonstrators rallying against the nomination of a lawyer to the position of advisor to the governor. The lawyer, Mabrouk Korchide, also accused another Facebook user of defamation for commenting on Sahli’s post. These cases remain unresolved as of May 2012.
In a more disconcerting case, two Tunisians were given seven-year prison sentences on March 28, 2012 for publishing online content that was perceived as offensive to Islam and “liable to cause harm to public order or public morals,” a crime that is punishable under the repressive penal code still in place from the Ben Ali era. One of the individuals, Ghazi Ben Mohamed Beji, was convicted for an essay he published on Scribd.com (a free social publishing website) in July 2011 that satirized the Prophet Muhammad’s biography. The other individual, Jaber Ben Abdallah Majri, was accused of posting photos and satirical writings about Islam and the Prophet on his Facebook page. Beji was sentenced in absentia, while Majri has been in prison since his arrest on March 5, 2012.
Laws that limit online anonymity also remain a concern in the post-Ben Ali era. In particular, Article 11 of the Telecommunications Decree prohibits ISPs from transmitting encrypted information without prior approval from the Minister of Communications. Furthermore, Article 8 of the Internet Regulations requires ISPs to submit a list of all subscribers to the ATI. While there have been no reports of the various Telecommunications Decree and Internet Regulations laws being enforced by the interim government in 2011 and early 2012, their continuing existence underscore the precarious nature of Tunisia’s newfound and relatively open internet environment. In a positive step, the ATI has begun to actively support online privacy, officially launching a mirror of the TOR website (Tor.mirror.tn) that features popular circumvention and anonymizing software previously used by cyber-dissidents against the ATI’s censorship apparatus. Mobile phone subscribers are required to register their SIM cards.
In addition, there were no reports of extralegal government surveillance of online activity in the post-Ben Ali period. However, the deep-packet inspection technology employed by the former authorities to monitor the internet and intercept communications is still in place, sparking worries that the technology can be reinstated if desired. According to the current leader of the ATI, Maoz Chakchouk, the internet authority is trying “to understand the equipment… [and] we’re waiting for the new government to decide what to do with it.”
Under the Ben Ali regime, online journalists and bloggers were commonly targeted with extralegal intimidation and physical violence. In 2011, no instances of targeted violence and beatings were reported, though some online journalists and bloggers present at recent demonstrations were reportedly harassed by the police for their protest activities.
Technical attacks were a popular tool used under the Ben Ali regime to intimidate and silence ICT users. During the December 2010-January 2011 protests, police hacked into numerous email and Facebook accounts of cyber-activists, stealing passwords to infiltrate the networks of citizen-journalists that were fueling the anti-government uproar. Since Ben Ali’s fall, there have been no reported incidents of cyberattacks perpetrated by the government. However, in April 2012 the hacktivist group Anonymous leaked emails stolen from members of the ruling Ennahda party. The Anonymous attack was reportedly a response to the rise of the conservative Salafi Muslim faction in Tunisia and the Ennahda party’s perceived lack of action against the Salafi’s violent efforts to implement Sharia law in the country.
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