By Russell Southwood

Balancing Act (London)

June 6, 2005

In November Tunisia will be hosting the second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society, which according to the President of Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, “constitutes a historic opportunity for the international community to agree on a common vision of the Information Society and to develop an approach for action aimed at bridging the digital divide and allowing the advent of an Information Society that is balanced and accessible to all.” Ironically, however, Tunisia has one of the poorest records in allowing freedom of expression and has repeatedly been criticised for denying access to information on the internet.

Earlier this year members of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) conducted a fact-finding mission to Tunisia undertaken from 14 to 19 January 2005. Members of IFEX have taken a close interest in the World Summit on the Information Society since its inception. In June 2004, 31 members of IFEX signed an open letter to United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan expressing serious concerns for the second Summit in Tunis and setting out a series of freedom of expression benchmarks. These concerns were reinforced by experiences at the Tunis Summit Preparatory Committee meeting held in Hammamet, Tunisia in June 2004 when Tunisian government officials and Tunisian government sponsored “NGOs” sought to suppress any discussion of human rights in Tunisia.

In consequence, a number of IFEX members involved in the WSIS process took the decision to establish the IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group to observe and report on freedom of expression in Tunisia in the run up to and the period following the Tunis Summit of the WSIS. The report produced by the IFEX-TMG, assesses the current state of freedom of expression in Tunisia and makes a series of recommendations for the country to improve its implementation of internationally agreed freedom of expression and other human rights standards if it is to hold the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis in November 2005. One of the principle findings in this report was the blocking of websites, including news and information websites, and police surveillance of e-mails and Internet cafes. In addition, young people exploring the Web are harassed, arrested, tortured and sentenced to heavy prison terms following unfair trials. More Tunisians have been arrested for expressing themselves on the Internet during the past three years than for views carried by the print media since the country’s independence, 48 years ago.

The number of states seeking to control the Internet has risen rapidly in recent years, according to the OpenNet Initiative (ONI), a collaborative partnership that investigates and challenges state filtration of the internet and surveillance practices. They are currently conducting research on internet filtering in Tunisia and spoke to News Update’s Mapara Syed about their findings.

Internet content filtering is a term that refers to the techniques by which control is imposed on access to information on the Internet. Content filtering can be divided into two separate techniques. Content analysis refers to techniques used to control access to information based on its content, such as the inclusion of specific keywords. Blocking techniques refer to particular router configurations used to deny access to particular Internet Protocol (IP) addresses or specific services that run on particular port numbers. For example, a state may run a blocking filter at the international gateway level that restricts access from within the country to websites that are deemed illegal, such as pornographic or human rights websites.

“From our observations, the latter technique is applied in Tunisia where internet filtering is conducted in a centralised manner,” said Nart Villeneuve, ONI’s Technical Director. “We believe that the institution that governs the internet in Tunisia [Tunisian Internet Agency] controls the international gateway and it is near here that the filtering occurs. We believe this because different ISPs in the country have exhibited similar behaviour and there is a consistency in the filtering, which suggests that website blocking is specific, is systematic and is centrally controlled. In countries like Iran, on the other hand, there is an inconsistency in filtering with different ISPs and that is because internet filtering in this country occurs in a distributed manner where responsibility is delegated to each ISP by the state,” he added.

“The Internet blocking in Tunisia appears to be performed by the software application SmartFilter, which is an application developed and marketed by a US company, Secure Computing. SmartFilter is a commercial product and a popular system for the national category, which refers to state-directed implementation of national content filtering and blocking technologies at the backbone level,” explained Villeneuve. According to the IFEX-TMG report, this application provides a series of website categories which may be switched on or off. In addition it allows for unique blocking of specified URLs. The Tunisian use of Smartfilter appears to have the categories of nudity, pornography and anonymisers (websites that try and get around filtering) switched on. In addition a number of unique URLs are switched on to ensure website blocking. These include political, news and information websites.

“Tunisia ranks very high, along with China, Vietnam and Burma, that target websites specific to the country so religious, political or what may be viewed as opposition websites and mainly those giving alternative Tunisia perspectives on Tunisia. As these are popular, high profile sites it gives a contextual indication of the impact of internet filtering in Tunisia rather than the number of sites blocked,” claimed Villeneuve. “Considering all the Arab states, internet filtering in Tunisia is more politically orientated than say in Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates. It is definitely unmatched in North Africa,” he added.

According to the Tunisian Human Rights League, the tight police surveillance of the Internet and the harassment and imprisonment of cyber dissidents have had a negative impact on the rate of Internet use. The IFEX-TMG report concluded that in Tunisia, the rate of internet use is 750 per 10,000 inhabitants and that most Internet users in Tunisia work for the government and personal accounts amount to only 7.5% of Internet users. It was also reported that there are 0.3 Internet cafes per 10,000 inhabitants in Tunisia, while in neighbouring Algeria there are 4 times as many, i.e ; 1.3 Internet cafes per 10,000 inhabitants. “The implications of such internet filtering are a growing sense of fear, which leads to self-censorship,” said Villeneuve. “Internet filtering is by no means 100% accurate [depends on accuracy of filtering software] and commercial filtering products can make mistakes. Systems that filter based on content can misclassify certain urls, which results in crucial teen advice or health websites being blocked. In Tunisia, we have seen that filtering can interfere with internet collaborative systems, which means that NGOs and activist interaction can be disrupted.”

Another interesting find that ONI have discovered is the way in which the Tunisian authorities are informing internet users of the blocking. “When a user tries to access a blocked website what usually happens is that a page will appear stating that the site has been blocked or an internet error page will simply appear,” explained Villeneuve. “What we have noticed in Tunisia is that an internet error page appears on the screen but the technical configuration shows that it is a blocking page. The user will believe it is a genuine internet error when in fact the website has been blocked, therefore, it is a form of deception.”

List of blocked websites providing news, politics and information on Tunisia as at 16 January 2005.…

-  Tunisia alternative political discussion board

-  website of international press freedom defenders, Reporters Sans Frontieres

-  Tunisian news and comment, editor was imprisoned

-  website of banned Tunisian Islamist An-Nahdha movement

-  Tunisian oppositional news and politics

-  Tunisian oppositional news and politics

-  online newspaper of the banned Tunisian Communist Workers Party


-  Tunisian independent/alternative news and information

-  Tunisian oppositional politics, news, linked to the CPR (unrecognized political party)

-  “official” website of the Tunisian CPR (Congress for the Republic, unrecognized)

-  Tunisian oppositional politics, linked to the independent Democratic Initiative…

-  website of exiled Tunisian human rights defender, Moncef Marzouki

-  Tunisian oppositional news and politics

-  Tunisian oppositional news and politics

-  website of Swiss NGO campaigning for human rights in Tunisia

-  Tunisian oppositional news and politics

-  solidarity with Tunisian political prisoners

-  Tunisian oppositional politics, news, satire

-  “the Word”, independent Tunisian news and politics

NB. The filtering technology provides flexibility for specific URLs to be switched on or off at short notice and accessibility of some websites does vary from time to time. Many previously blocked websites were suddenly available in January 2005 leading many people to believe that the visit to Tunisia of the IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group led the government to temporarily lift blocking of local and international rights groups and newspapers and magazines.