Information & Communication Technology

Freedom Online, Tunisia: Revolution and Revelations

Commentary, 15 July 2013

By Lucy Purdon, Policy Officer, Privacy International; Research Fellow, IHRB

The third Freedom Online conference took place on June 17-18 in Tunis.

The third Freedom Online conference held recently in Tunisia’s capital city, Tunis, was dominated not by discussion of Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, when the Internet contributed to bringing about regime change and sparked the Arab Spring, but instead by the global fallout from revelations of the US National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance and data gathering practices.

The failure of many states to protect human rights online focused the debate in Tunis. However, the parallels between recent Tunisian history and the wider global debate did not go unnoticed and in this context the Tunisian experience offers interesting lessons on the way forward.

The Tunisian people have a long and bitter experience of state surveillance. Under the previous government, such practices were widespread. Western companies considered the country a “testing ground” for new surveillance and censorship technology. Post-revolution, the Internet is relatively uncensored, but the challenge to freedom of expression remains.

Sami Ben Gharbia, founder of Nawaat, an award winning blogging collective run by Tunisians, said during the Freedom Online conference that in present day Tunisia, the threat to freedom of expression “is not censorship… the threat is surveillance and we don’t know what is going on in terms of surveillance or equipment being used. We don’t know the scope of those who have been arrested because of this surveillance.”

His comments highlight the lack of clarity around surveillance methods and its targets, which many around the world will now find familiar. While Tunisians may today be free to express themselves online, there are repercussions for doing so. Sami listed a number of bloggers and musicians who have been arrested and imprisoned for expressing opinions online, including one blogger on trial for criticising the military and the rapper, Weld El 15, sentenced to two years imprisonment for releasing the song “Boulicia Kleb” (Cops are Dogs) on YouTube.

The Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI), a state-owned company and once the surveillance and censorship arm of the government, is in post-revolution Tunisia primarily an Internet exchange point, but the same censorship and surveillance technology that could be put to use by a future government remains housed in a Tunis villa. ATI have allowed a group of Tunisian hackers access to the villa who are currently trying to decrypt the censorship technology and extract information in order to establish how these systems work and how censorship was implemented, in order to avoid it happening again. However, access has not been granted to the more sophisticated monitoring equipment supplied towards the end of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali’s regime as ATI seems to be contractually prevented from naming the companies involved or giving hackers access to the equipment. Therefore, the potential capability of surveillance methods in Tunisia remains a mystery.

Tunisia is currently finalising a new constitution, which will be followed by the drafting of new laws that will hopefully provide the checks and balances needed to limit, or create a ceiling, to the state’s surveillance powers. Eleanor Saitta of the Open Internet Tools Project (Open ITP) argued that determining new checks and balances cannot begin until the capabilities of the technology in place are clear. Current surveillance and censorship equipment in Tunisia and how it may be used remains hidden from the public and those in the know seem unable to give full details.

Moez Chakchouk, Chief Executive of ATI, spoke frankly at the conference about the “large capabilities” for surveillance that remain, even if some of these functionalities are no longer needed in the new Tunisia. Arguably, those features and functionalities which are yet to be revealed, are susceptible to misuse and human rights abuses.

For advocates like Sami, the challenge is to fight against non-transparency “within the establishment and within the system.” He was referring to Tunisia, but the same could be said for the rest of the world.

Participants at the conference called on the Tunisian government both to admit it had bought and installed large-scale surveillance equipment and to disclose specifically its capablities. Moez Chakchouk of ATI stressed the importance of educating those working with the technology about essential human rights laws, standards, and principles, and how to respect them in their work. Vendors of the surveillance equipment were also called upon to acknowledge their role in selling equipment to the previous government, and now assist Tunisia in adapting to it’s post-revolution ideal by allowing flexibility in any non-disclosure agreements and contracts signed by the previous regime.

Being transparent about the capabilities of technology, as well as what information governments are demanding of companies, is a starting point for an industry wishing to ensure it respects international human rights standards. It is clear ATI are on the road to doing this, despite still being unable to reveal the names of the companies that provided the more sophisticated surveillance technology. What ATI does next could inform the drafting of new laws on surveillance and its limits in Tunisia, something the rest of the world could look to as the global debate continues around applying appropriate levels of surveillance to fight crime while respecting the rights of the wider population.

The recent revelations in the US have prompted some ICT companies to ask for greater clarification regarding the limits of surveillance. Companies seeking to highlight the complex situation they face have understandably pointed to conflict and ambiguity between national and international laws and their implementation. But it should be noted that the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights make clear that where laws are absent, weak or un-enforced, companies should respect internationally recognised human rights to the greatest extent possible. The NSA leaks have undoubtedly widened the surveillance debate and focused on the need for public accountability and for limits to surveillance. Only then can freedom of expression and privacy be truly realised.

ATI is taking the first step to restore trust by initiating transparency and publicly committing to changing from being an instigator of censorship and surveillance in Tunisia to a promoter of freedom of expression and privacy. Hopefully the Tunisian government will follow suit and the unnamed companies involved will remove any obstacles to this being achieved. Tunisian blogger Slim Amamou perfectly summed up the heart of the debate when he said during the last Freedom Online conference panel: “People have freedom, not the Internet.” When Estonia hosts the fourth Freedom Online conference in 2014, hopefully the world will be a step closer to realising this goal and Tunisia may be the one to watch.

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