The Tunisian Internet Agency was the Ben Ali regime’s instrument for censoring the web. Now, as it attempts to break ties with the past, Afef Abrougui talks to its CEO about the online challenges facing Tunisia
The regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was an enemy to internet freedom. Significant resources were spent on censorship of the web. The Tunisian Internet Agency (established in 1996, and known as the ATI by its French acronym), was the regime’s instrument to block access to online dissident voices and websites that criticised the regime. After the ousting of Ben Ali on 14 January 2011, Tunisian netizens have started to enjoy unprecedented, uncensored web access.
And as the ATI is trying to break all ties with its image as a web censor, questions are being raised about the role of the agency in post-revolution Tunisia, the destiny of censorship machinery, and the challenges to the internet in the country.
To answer these questions and more, Index on Censorship interviewed Moez Chakchouk, the ATI’s CEO.
There is a complaint lodged against ATI to filter pornographic content on the web. If ATI loses the case, how do you see the future of internet censorship in Tunisia? Will this case pave the way for other lawsuits asking the ATI to block other content?
Currently, there are other lawsuits against the ATI requiring it to filter other content. There are lawsuits filed by investigating magistrates, similar to the complaint lodged by the military Tribunal in May. [In May, 2011, and following a verdict issued by the military tribunal, the ATI filtered five Facebook pages criticising the army]. We have received complaints to censor about 30 Facebook pages.
Who is lodging such complaints?
There are complaints lodged by one person against another one, for defamation, or for spreading false or unconfirmed information. In this case, an investigating magistrate has asked the agency to filter such content.
Under the former regime, ATI used to use censorship equipment. Questions are being raised about such equipment. Where is it now? What happened to it? Will it be ever used again?
The censorship equipment is still at the ATI headquarters. The machinery was bought by the government and installed at the ATI in 2006. In 2011, we did not buy anything new. The equipment requires an extension every year to face increase in Internet traffic. In 2011, we did not do anything; we could not buy more equipment because the government took back a subvention that was first allocated to the ATI.
What about the five Facebook pages that the Military tribunal asked you to filter in May?
We did filter those pages for some time but then we stopped for technical reasons.The global filters were not capable of covering all Internet traffic, which increased from 30 Gbits to 45 Gbits over last year. And for an increase of 15Gbits, we need two more filtering machines. When we tried to filter those pages with the available equipment, Internet service quality lowered. And we can’t allow this to happen because we have contracts with Internet Service Providers (ISPs) …We are somehow caught in between. Judicially, the agency is obliged to filter (…) but we could not do it. So we have decided not to filter until we could improve the equipment that we have.
Plus in August 2011 the agency faced another mechanical breakdown; the filtering machinery failed. And this is quite normal because over the past year no maintenance took place and we did not develop the equipment that we have.
Under the former regime, the ATI used to play the role of Internet censor. What is the role of the ATI in post-Ben Ali Tunisia? And how will it move from an agency that censors online dissident voices and content criticising the regime to an institution guaranteeing net freedom?
Right now there is no internet censorship. I’m against censorship. But in case there is a call for the comeback of censorship, it should be based on legal texts. And for the moment there are no such texts for the Internet in Tunisia.
The goal of the agency after the revolution is guaranteeing net neutrality. When we say net neutrality we should not care about the content.
Again we do not prefer Internet legislation because we are aware its risks.
If we want to develop the Internet in Tunisia we should not create obstacles. It is not urgent for Tunisia to draw red lines. This is my personal point of view independent of the agency, which has to remain neutral.
If there is to be Internet control in Tunisia, this control should be smart, transparent and for security reasons. The agency, used to carry out such control secretly. Today we are advocating absolute transparency. It would be better if a new public agency would be established and take charge of such a task. The ATI cannot guarantee internet neutrality and supervise the Internet at the same time. That is a conflict. This is my personal view as the legal representative of the ATI.
Do you know where the key technicians and officials who ran the old regime’s internet blocking and surveillance operation are? Are they still working?
The ATI is a technical agency where the censorship equipment was and is still installed. The agency has never been involved in deciding which websites should be censored. The employees of the agency know how to operate, and maintain the machinery; but they are not the ones who chose the websites to censor. They are only trained to maintain the equipment. Those who took such decisions were not ATI employees.
According to the information that I have; the Tunisian Agency for External Communication [known by its French acronym as the ATCE] was involved in taking such decisions (…) the ATCE had important transactions with the ATI. But these transactions were not documented as practices of censorship, but as website surveillance. But there is nothing documented that proves there were censorship related transactions between the two agencies.
The former ruling party, the Constitutional Democratic Party, (now dissolved, and known by its French acronym the as RCD) , the presidential palace and the security apparatus, might have been involved in such practices too. I don’t know exactly. There are no documents that reveal exact names and parties.
What about the foreign companies that the agency cooperated with under the former regime? Are you still cooperating with them?
We are no longer cooperating with the companies that the agency cooperated with in the past. Over the past year we put an end to the agency’s dealings with old markets, and we did not launch any new censorship-related projects.
Since the agency is filtering for public institutions, we have been trying to renew a maintenance contract with a filtering company. But we have faced enormous issues, and the contract has not been renewed yet. This company considered the Tunisian Internet agency a big partner … a technical partner that hosted equipment that does not belong to it, and that was used to undertake censorship and surveillance related tests. For these companies, Tunisia responded to their needs; a country close to Europe, and a place where everything was permitted, and no one dares to raise the question about the 404 error. But now, when a website hosted in Europe, or the USA does no longer exist, and 404 error appears on the computer screen, newspapers immediately report that “censorship is back” , and that “ATI is lying to us”. Truly, there is not a single functioning machine except the local filters, which are functioning for public institutions.
What is the name of this company?
Unfortunately, I can’t tell you the names of the companies. I read the contracts of these companies with the agency, and they contain confidentiality clauses.
What are the upcoming challenges for the ATI and for the internet in Tunisia?
When we check the ICT development index, we notice that the problem of Tunisia is the content. We have an advanced infrastructure but the content and apps are not developing for simple reasons. Before, to create a website there were obstacles — namely waiting for the ATCE approval, and censorship. People did not feel comfortable and safe to create content. It was impossible to create websites in Tunisia; it was a dream.
Obtaining a domain name for a website was impossible too. But, now any Tunisian citizen can go ask for the name of the domain that he or she chooses. There are no more political constraints. And there is no more censorship. People used to be afraid from authorities tracking them and their families down. This is why Tunisia was behind.
Obstacles that were established during a specific period should be abolished now. We should try to ensure an adequate development without constraints, and barriers. The internet is freedom, the internet is openness. Of course it can be badly used, but we will go through this over time.
Now, people are lodging complaints against each other for defamation. We are overreacting and I have fears that if we over react we will receive censorship orders.
Another challenge for the internet in Tunisia is regulation. The government should not be involved in internet regulation. Instead, an independent authority should take in charge such task. But we don’t have such authorities for the internet in Tunisia, so we have to raise this issue realistically.
If the state wants to draw red lines for net freedom, it should first establish an independent authority to regulate the internet. Internet legislation should not be drafted without a regulation authority that creates balance, between public and individual interests. The state has the right to protect and eliminate defamation, but citizens have the right to freely express themselves. So we need balance, and if the government cannot create such balance, a conflict of interests will occur.