January 21, 2011 | By Eva Galperin

Early Lessons from the Tunisian Revolution

Last week's post about the increasingly draconian and desperate measures the Tunisian government was taking to censor bloggers, journalists, and activists online was rapidly made irrelevant by subsequent events. Over the next few days, Tunisian dictator El Abidine Ben Ali promised not to run for re-election in 2014, then offered widespread reforms, including freedom of expression on the Internet, and finally stepped down from power and fled the country. The steps that EFF called on Facebook, Google, and Yahoo to take in order to protect the privacy and safety of their Tunisian users soon lost their urgency. For now, Tunisians are experiencing unprecedented freedom online after years of extensive government filtering and censorship of websites.

One early lesson from the Tunisian revolution has been that social networking sites can be powerful tools for communication. There has been a great deal of argument about the role of social networking sites in the Tunisian revolution. The Berkman Center's Ethan Zuckerman observes that the riots and protests in Tunisia did not receive even a fraction of the social media coverage that was lavished on Iran's Green Revolution:

For users of social media, the protests in Iran were an inescapable, global story. Tunisia, by contrast, hasn't seen nearly the attention or support from the online community.

Even so, Zuckerman credits social media with giving Tunisians a view of the protests that they did not get through heavily-censored government television, radio, and newspapers. YouTube had been blocked in Tunisia since 2007, but that did not stop Tunisians from using the site to share videos of the riots and protests with the world. Tunisians shared details about the clashes between the unarmed protesters and police using live ammunition on Twitter. The first rumors of a coup on January 12th were also spread on the social networking site. The interim government includes blogger Slim Amamou, who had been detained by the Tunisian government as a political prisoner just last week. Slim made the announcement that he would be joining the new government as Secretary of State for Sports and Youth Affairs on his Twitter stream.

Another early lesson from the Tunisian revolution is that activists in repressive regimes must take steps to minimize risk to themselves when communicating online. While social networking sites played a role in allowing Tunisians to communicate about the riots and protests among themselves and to the outside world, the Tunisian government also exploited social networks to track down dissenters. Bloggers, journalists, and online activists in Tunisia faced detention as well as government attacks against their Facebook and email accounts, which serve as a reminder that online activists in repressive regimes may be vulnerable to government reprisal. EFF urges online activists to read our Surveillance Self-Defense International page, which gives practical advice for people living in repressive regimes who want to speak out while minimizing the risk of surveillance and censorship by their governments.

The threat to Tunisian activists appears to have abated for now, but the opportunity to learn from their successes and failures is just beginning. The precautions outlined in SSDI are essential reading for everyone who wants to follow in their footsteps.

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