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Internet Filtering in Tunisia in 2005: A Country Study


The Tunisian Republic implements an Internet filtering regime that aggressively targets and blocks substantial on-line material on political opposition, human rights, methods of bypassing filtering, and pornography. Tunisia's position as host of the upcoming United Nations (UN) World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in November 2005 has cast a spotlight on the state's information technology and media policies. In preparations for the WSIS meeting, human rights and media organizations have increased their criticism of Tunisia's widespread censorship practices and Internet controls. For example, the International Freedom of Expression eXchange (IFEX) formed the Tunisia Monitoring Group (TMG), a coalition of 13 organizations, to challenge the state's practices and to urge the UN to pressure Tunisia to make immediate reforms or forfeit the summit.

To document the extent of Tunisia's Internet content controls, the OpenNet Initiative (ONI) tested 1923 sites from within the state, and found 187 (10%) blocked. Tunisia's filtering efforts are focused and effective. The state employs the SmartFilter software, produced by the U.S. company Secure Computing, to target and prevent access to four types of material in particular: political opposition to the ruling government, sites on human rights in Tunisia, tools that enable users to circumvent these controls, and pages containing pornography or other sexually explicit content.

The Tunisian state clearly views the Internet as a powerful social and economic force and has invested in telecommunications infrastructure and passed modern telecommunications legislation. Tunisia has deployed the Internet in a way that implements a multi-layered architecture of control. All of the state's Internet Service Providers (ISPs) purchase access from Tunisia's Internet Agency, which performs filtering at the network backbone. This ensures greater consistency of control. In addition, the primary means of going on-line for Tunisians are the "Publinets" - Internet cafes that are required by the state to monitor users' access to prevent them from obtaining prohibited materials.

Moreover, Tunisia's approach to the Internet comports with the strong limitations the state imposes on other media. Laws criminalizing defamation of public officials or spreading false news push journalists to censor their reporting, and the imprisonment of critics of the government makes plain that these laws have bite. The state also employs a mixture of economic controls, such as directing subsidies and advertising to friendly outlets, and informal pressures, such as violence against critics, to ensure that media stay within prescribed boundaries.

The World Summit on the Information Society is committed to a vision where "everyone can create, access, utilize and share information and knowledge," where each person has the right "to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media". To have the Summit hosted in Tunisia, a state where information is controlled through a mixture of legal, technical, and economic means, belies these goals and highlights the growing contradiction between lofty principles of free expression and communication often associated with the Internet by policymakers and industry, and the reality of censorship and surveillance practices worldwide. As with several other countries the ONI has studied, Tunisia is part of a growing trend whereby software developed by Western corporations is used to by repressive regimes to restrict access to information and curb freedom of speech.

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