Blocking porn marks key test of net freedom in Tunisia

The fall of the regime of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali has allowed internet users in Tunisia to enjoy a period of unfettered web access after the Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI) turned off its censorship machines. Now the internet censorship debate has surfaced again.

In May last year a Tunisian court ordered the ATI to block X-rated websites following a complaint lodged by a group of lawyers who argue that pornography violates Islamic values and presents a threat to children surfing the web. This case initiated a debate about “red lines” and internet freedom.

After losing an appeal on 15 August 2011, the ATI took the case higher to the Court of Cassation, claiming that “the filtering of pornographic websites listed by Smart Filter could not be carried out for the five internet service providers.” A verdict is due in the next few days. If the court orders the agency to reinstate filtering, the agency will find itself forced to perform a censorship role it no longer wants to play.

Over the past year, the ATI has attempted to redefine its function. Moez Chakchou, the ATI’s CEO, describes its role post revolution as  “guaranteeing net neutrality, and when we say net neutrality we should not care about the content”.

The ATI chief told Index: “From a judicial point of view, I am obliged to filter, and I do respect these verdicts even though they contradict my personal beliefs.”

Earlier this year, Tunisia’s Interim President Moncef Marzouki, raised the issue of “red lines” in an interview. ‘’There should be red lines limiting freedom of speech…these red lines should not be used as pretexts for censorship…the lines should be debated and accepted by all’’ he said.

Free speech activists believe that filtering pornography or creating “red lines” could pave the way for a comeback of censorship.

“We are fighting against a ghost of the past… It would be regrettable to resort to operations of anonymous (OpTunisia) or to use proxies again just like under the Ben Ali regime”, said Dhouha Ben Youssef, a blogger.

“I believe that the first important step to take in order to prevent the comeback of censorship is adding the word “internet” in the new constitution…because I don’t consider internet as means of communication only, but as means of expression”, she added.

Tunisia does not currently have legislation covering internet censorship, the ATi Chief warns that:

“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”