For years, Tunisians suffered in relative media silence as the Ben Ali regime curtailed digital rights, blocking websites and surveilling citizens. Then, thanks to the hard work of Tunisian free expression advocates who for many years worked to raise awareness of the country’s pervasive Internet controls, censorship fell along with the regime, with Ben Ali promising an end to filtering in his final speech on January 13 before fleeing to Saudi Arabia.

However, with Ben Ali gone, Tunisian courts have become the next critical battleground in the ongoing effort for a censorship-free Internet in Tunisia, with the Agence Tunisienne d'Internet (ATI) or Tunisian Internet Agency caught in the middle of implementing censorship orders and arguing in support of free expression.

By January 13, Tunisians finally had the free access for which they had fought so hard. But it was to be short-lived: In May, Al Jazeera reported that the interim government was attempting to retain elements of the old regime's censorship; the ATI received an order from an investigating judge in the Permanent Military Tribunal in Tunis to block the Facebook account of democracy activist Jalel Brick. The ATI executed the orders, but published a list of the sites that had been ordered blocked, explaining that the bans were temporary due to the absence of laws regarding filtering of online content.

On May 27, Internet users received another blow to Internet freedom as a Tunisian court ordered the blocking of all pornographic sites in response to a petition from three local lawyers who argued the "negative psychological, physiological, social and educational effects" of pornographic websites. Though the ATI attempted to have the order blocked, the decision was upheld and the ATI agreed in June to comply by initiating the block, while continuing to appeal the court order. Free expression activist Slim Amamou, who had been appointed to the interim government ministry just months before, criticized the decision, resigning shortly afterward.

The ATI’s second appeal--which asserted, among other things, that the agency lacked the financial and technical resources to implement the ban--was also denied, in a ruling handed down August 15. The ATI intends to file another appeal with Tunisia’s Court of Cassation--the country’s highest court--but in the meantime must implement the order fully.

The goal of the ATI is to be declared as an official Internet exchange point (IXP) for Tunisia. As such, the agency supports the right of ISPs to offer voluntary opt-in parental control services and have offered assistance toward that end. Nonetheless, the ATI firmly opposes the role the courts are playing in attempting to censor online content.

On Facebook and, less so, on Twitter, Tunisian netizens have also expressed their anger and frustration about the decision to censor. 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.

Though Tunisian activists have taken to social media, changing their avatars to the anti-censorship logos of days past, media coverage of the court decision has been minimal.

Like both the ATI and Tunisian citizens, we have grave concerns about the implementation of any new filtering in Tunisia. While bans on pornography may be well-meaning, filtering almost always results in overblocking, or the unintended inclusion of sites unrelated to the ban. Take, for instance, the case of Australia, where a ban on “illegal content” was proposed; the blacklist of sites, revealed by Wikileaks, included the site of a Queensland-based dentist, as well as other unrelated content.

Filtering is also ineffective and expensive. After years of circumventing bans on YouTube, news sites, and other content, Tunisians have become savvy at using proxies and other tools to circumvent filtering. Furthermore, in addition to the financial cost of maintaining censorship, filtering can result in slowed bandwidth, a concern raised (video is in French) by the ATI’s president, Moez Chakchouk.

The EFF supports the ATI’s decision to appeal the order to block pornography at Tunisia’s highest court and urges the court to make the right decision in ensuring free expression for all Tunisian citizens.

Related Issues