On Monday, at the third Arab Bloggers Meeting, the new chairman and CEO of the Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI), Moez Chakchouk, said that, under now-deposed president Ben Ali’s regime, Tunisia tested censorship software for Western companies in exchange for “significant discounts.” Chakchouk said he could not name specific companies due to issues of confidentiality, but said that the ATI has removed itself from those partnerships and “thus can no longer afford to censor, even if they wished to (he says they don’t anymore).” In post-Ben Ali Tunisia, bloggers are now being encouraged, says Chakchouk, to call for better regulation and constitutional protections for online free speech.
Chakchouk’s statement does, though, make “a huge hole in tech companies’ claim that their equipment sale[s] to repressive regimes [are] in good faith.” As Jillian C. York writes on her liveblog of Day One of the Arab Bloggers Meeting, Tunisia has long used software owned by McAfee/Intel “to censor the Internet and continues to do so.”
York provides background about the ATI’s role in surveilling the activities of Tunisians:
The ATI was long an enemy of Tunisians; charged with censorship and surveillance under Ben Ali, it was a feared agency, its practices referred to widely as “Ammar 404,” in honor of the 404 error users received when trying to access a blocked site. Post-revolution, the options were to shut down Ammar 404 and the ATI, or leave the ATI open as a semi-government agency, charged with being Tunisia’s IXP [Internet Exchange Point]. Moez [Chakchouk] and others have faced several attempts to shut down the Internet, but continue their fight for an open and neutral Internet.
Chakchouk notes some considerations that would need to be made should censorship be called for, as has been the case for all pornographic sites under the order of a Tunisian court:
“Even if we wanted to censor, we’d have to consider the court decisions – there was a court decision in an appeals court without any prior references. We need to change ATI, make it an IXP, and provide more transparency.”
Ben Ali had promised to end filtering in his final speech on January 13, given shortly before he fled to Saudi Arabia. But Tunisians’ free access to the Internet was short-lived, writes York. By May, the interim government had sent the ATI an order to block the the Facebook account of democracy activist Jalel Brick. The ATI did so, while also publishing a list of sites it had been ordered to block.
Then, on May 27, a Tunisian court ordered that all pornographic sites be blocked, after receiving a petition from three local lawyers who argued about the “negative psychological, physiological, social and educational effects” of pornographic websites. The ATI has twice appealed the decision and Tunisians have taken to social media sites including Facebook to protest the decision to censor. As York says,
Many see the block on Facebook pages in particular as an attempt to block criticism of the Army (an act which is banned by Article 91 of the Military Justice Act).
Although there is a community, motivated by religious concerns, that is happy about the decision to block pornography, the majority of Tunisia’s online community have expressed disagreement. While some have argued Internet freedom as a human rights principle, others have–like the ATI–pointed out the risk of implementing censorship of any kind, lest it lead Tunisia back to the censorship of the Ben Ali era.
Other Western companies that have sold surveillance and censorship equipment to foreign regimes include European companies Siemens and Nokia to Iran and the US’s Cisco to China. Regarding the latter, a lawsuit was filed in May in Federal District Court for the Northern District of California in San Jose, in which Falun Gong alleges that networking giant Cisco Systems had “supplied and helped maintain a surveillance system” known as the “Golden Shield” which “allowed the Chinese government to track and censor the group’s Internet activities.”
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