Tunisia has a grim history of Internet censorship. The extensive surveillance and filtering practices of Zeine el Abidin Ben Ali’s former regime had earned Tunisia the title of ‘’internet enemy ‘’ in 2009 and 2010, along with countries like China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.
Two years after the fall of the Ben Ali rule, Tunisia is taking steady steps toward embracing internet freedom. Reform, however, remains threatened by a set of Ben Ali–era laws restricting freedom of expression online.
“Ammar404 is dead”
On the eve of the ouster of Ben Ali, the regime shut down filtering equipment in a desperate attempt to contain the pro-democracy protests. Ever since, Tunisians have been enjoying uncensored Web access, despite attempts to filter five Facebook pages critical of the army and adult content.
“I announce that the death certificate of Ammar404 has been issued. He is dead and it is time to bury him”, said Mongi Marzoug, Tunisia’s ICT minister during a press conference in early September, 2012. Ammar404 is the nickname Tunisian netizens give to internet censorship.
Marzoug’s declarations came to appease the fears of internet users, amid rumors of the return of filtering practices. The minister also announced that Tunisia joined the Freedom Online Coalition “a group of governments committed to collaborating to advance Internet freedom” and will host the coalition’s third conference later this year.
Reforming the Tunisian Internet Agency
Shutting down the filtering equipment was only a tiny step toward cutting ties with Internet censorship practices. Reforming the Tunisian Internet Agency (known by its French acronym, the ATI) would come next.
During the Ben Ali rule, the ATI hosted censorship machinery and implemented filtering orders. The agency now manages the country’s Internet Exchange Point (TunIXP) and seeks to ensure internet neutrality.
Under the Ben Ali regime, all Internet Service Providers (ISPs) were obliged to route their internet traffic via ATI. This had facilitated internet filtering and surveillance.
In early January, the ICT ministry cancelled a number of regulatory provisions in the fixed and 3G mobile licenses previously awarded to Tunisiana and Orange Tunisie, thus allowing the two ISPs to bypass ATI for incoming and outgoing international Internet traffic. The decision was welcomed by Tunisian activists who consider it as another guarantee against the comeback of “Ammar 404.”
Legal Reforms Needed
A number of repressive Ben Ali ICT and Internet laws remain on the books. These laws represent a serious threat to free speech online. For instance, article 9 of Internet Regulations (dated March 22, 1997) obliges ISPs to monitor and take down content contrary to public order and ‘good morals,’ while article 11 prohibits the use of encryption technologies without prior approval from the authorities.
Under article 86 of the Telecommunication Law (dated January 15, 2001), anyone found guilty of ‘’using public communication networks to insult or disturb others’’ could spend up to two years in prison and pay a fine.
Tunisia needs to continue on its path of reform by abolishing or amending laws that restrict free speech on the Internet.