Tunisia and the Internet: A chance to get things right?

This coming Sunday (October 23rd, 2011), Tunisia will hold elections for the constituent assembly that will be tasked with re-writing the country’s constitution. While this election is only the first step in a long and winding path that may or may not succeed in establishing a vibrant Arab democracy in North Africa, reports are quoting election observers and human rights groups who are optimistic that people are serious about the process of holding a real election.

Censorship is a major topic in the Tunisian political discoure. There have recently been protests by conservatives demanding censorship of all media including TV, film, and Internet and protests by liberals against censorship. After  Internet censorship was ended when President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country in January, some censorship of pornographic and incendiary web content resumed in May of this year, prompting heated debates over who has the authority to decide what goes on the censorship list and whether that power will inevitably be abused.

At the Third Arab Bloggers Meeting in Tunis earlier this month, Moez Chakchouk, Chairman and CEO of the Tunisian Internet Agency, gave an amazing presentation (slideshow included) in which he revealed that under Ben Ali, his agency had secretly tested censorship and surveillance software for Western companies. He would not say which ones, although according to Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Tunisia long used McAfee’s SmartFilter to censor the Internet under the Ben Ali regime, and controversially has resumed some filtering  in a much more limited way during the transition.

ATI (as the Tunisian Internet Agency is known according to its French acronym) was much reviled by activists under Ben Ali and nicknamed “Ammar 404″ – the Arabic equivalent of “Joe 404,” with “404″ referring to the “404 page not found” error message that appears on browsers when a web page has been blocked. Now Mr. Chakchouk says he is trying to turn the agency into a “transparent” and “neutral” Internet exchange point (IXP) that can support a robust public discourse in an evolving new democracy. He wants to put an end to web filtering at the network level and instead provide tools and services for households to filter their home Internet if they so desire, without engaging in blanket censorship for the entire nation. In general, he believes that Tunisia must foster competition and innovation in Internet services. He wants Tunisia adopt global “best practices” in Internet governance.

After a Tunisian court ruled in May that some websites must be blocked, the ATI appealed the ruling twice, but lost both appeals. It is making a further appeal to the highest court.

Click here for a video of Chakchouk’s entire speech in French (perhaps somebody will give it English and Arabic subtitles at some point). Here is a shorter English interview he did immediately afterwards with Tunisia Online:

Whether Mr. Chakchouk will succeed or even keep his job, or whether the ATI will survive as an independent agency, Tunisian activists told me at the conference, will depend in no small part on the outcome of this weekend’s elections and the continued political jockeying beyond.

Riadh Guerfali, co-founder of the citizen media platform Nawaat.org which played a key role in spreading protest information and who is now running as an independent candidate from his home town of Bizerte (and who features prominently in chapters 1 and 14 of the book), has made Internet access and online free expression a key goal, as have many other former activists who are now running for office. On the other hand, there are other candidates – on both the left and the right – calling for Internet censorship as part of an effort to attract more conservative religious voters. Who will prevail in the election remains to be seen… and how the constituent assembly will choose to handle the questions of censorship and civil liberties when they write the constitution is even less clear.

“Information infrastructure is politics,” writes Philip N. Howard of Washington State University in a recently published Brookings Institution report on authoritarian regimes and Internet controls. Tunisian politics over the coming year are likely to determine the shape of the country’s information infrastructure – and decide just how different it will be from the past, or not. The shape of the infrastructure will in turn shape political discourse to the extent that it enables a full range of political viewpoints, debates, and even whistleblowing; or whether it enshrines censorship and surveillance mechanisms that can enable  power-holders to subtly (or not so subtly) manipulate information and surveil Internet users.

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