By Jillian C. York
In Tunisia, a new debate is taking shape. Long suppressed by the authoritarian regime of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s free expression movement for many years existed on the fringe, comprised of bloggers, software developers, media aficionados and expats whose frustration at Tunisia’s Internet censorship and surveillance regime – in place for over a decade — fomented their activism.
Now, regime shackles cast off, debate about Internet censorship has become significantly more subtle as youth vie for a free Internet while navigating tricky terrain. Prior to Jan. 13 2011, access to the Internet was extremely inhibited, preventing young people from utilizing most of the social media tools that have become popular the world over. Only Facebook was left open, and even then, was under surveillance, putting activists who used the site in danger and preventing others from doing so, out of fear.
In January 2011, just one day before he fled the country, Ben Ali declared an end to the country’s pervasive censorship and surveillance practices, leaving Tunisia’s citizens with a free Internet for essentially the very first time. But the absolute freedom was to be short-lived: Within just a few short months, the Agence Tunisienne d’Internet (ATI) had released a list of blocked sites, allowed by court order. Though brief, the list contained links to individual Facebook pages, including one belonging to a known dissident. In an interview, ATI director Moez Chakchouk acknowledged the filter’s lack of technical sophistication, commenting that there are “a thousand and one ways to access, especially by proxy or by typing a different URL syntax.”
Not long thereafter, a Tunis court issued an order – based on a petition by a group of lawyers – forcing the ATI to block pornographic content on the grounds that it poses a threat to minors and to Muslim values. The decision prompted an appeal from the ATI, which has stated its desire to act as a neutral and transparent Internet exchange point. It has also prompted a new wave of activism from young citizens who fear that instituting any kind of filtering could take them back to the days of Ben Ali.
Their fears are not entirely unfounded. While numerous well-meaning countries have attempted to put in place bans on online pornography, none have yet to do so without including — intentionally or by error — other, innocuous content. Take, for example, the case of Australia, which in 2007 introduced a scheme to filter “illegal content,” including certain categories of sexual content. Not only was the filtering mechanism broken almost immediately (and by a teenager, no less), but the blacklist of sites was later found to contain the website of a dentist, as well as other unrelated content.
Furthermore, filtering is ineffective and costly. Just as Tunisians for many years utilized proxies and other circumvention tools to get around the ban on YouTube, news, and other sites, so can they utilize the same tools to access pornography. And the cost is not simply financial: Filtering can result in slowed bandwidth as well.
The youth of Tunisia deserve their newfound freedom. Just as tools like Facebook has helped activists spread information about protests and disseminate videos and photos, those same tools will help a new generation of Tunisians connect with their peers around the world as they set out to build their new Tunisia. And, as they do, the battle for free expression is one that they should not have to fight.
Jillian York is the director of International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. She also writes regularly on the Internet and society for Al Jazeera English.