TUNIS, Tunisia –- When Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s dictatorship began unraveling here last month amid violent street protests, Tunisia’s internet administrators saw a massive spike in the number of sites placed on government block lists. But, in contrast to the embattled Egyptian government, the Ben Ali regime never ordered internet and cellphone communications shut off or slowed down, the head of the Tunisian Internet Agency says.
“I think Ben Ali did not realize where the situation was going or that he could be taken down,” Tunisian Internet Agency (French initials: ATI) director Kamel Saadaoui tells Wired.com. “Maybe if he had known that, he would have cut the internet. But the number of blocked sites did grow drastically when the revolution started. They were trying desperately to block any site that spoke about Sidi Bouzid. In a few weeks the number doubled.”
Egypt’s blackout, confirmed Thursday by internet-monitoring company Renesys, shut down four out of five of the country’s ISPs, with one connection left open to Noor Group, which hosts the Egyptian stock exchange, Rensys reported. The move signals an unprecedented clampdown on communications as activists, apparently inspired by Tunisia’s successful uprising, are taking to the streets in massive numbers.
During its 15-year existence, the ATI had a reputation for censoring the internet and hacking into people’s personal e-mail accounts. All Tunisian ISPs and e-mail flowed through its offices before being released on the internet, and anything that the Ben Ali dictatorship didn’t like didn’t see the light of day.
Saadaoui, its director of three years, complains that the perception of the ATI as an oppressive cyber-nanny is undeserved. He was just following the regime’s orders, he insists. Now that the government has changed, he’s following those new policies, helping open up Tunisian internet access as never before.
“We are computer and electronic engineers, not policemen,” Saadaoui says at his office in the ATI headquarters, a handsome, white bungalow near Pasteur Square in a high-end neighborhood of Tunis. “We don’t check e-mail and we don’t filter websites, even though we have filtering engines on our network. We run the engines technically, but we don’t decide to block your blog. We don’t even know you have a blog.”‘It’s useless to block. Whatever we do, there are ways to get around it.’
“But,” he adds, “we give access to these engines to other institutions that have been mandated by the government to choose which websites should be blocked. They have the gateway that has all the mail to be read.”
In other words: don’t blame us. We just work here.
Saadaoui described the governmental oversight of the internet as an encrypted interface built and maintained by the ATI. Only the government can manipulate it.
“We gave them an interface where they can go in and add anything they want to block,” he says. “We don’t even know what they were banning because the list is encrypted. We can only see the number of blocked sites and some other technical aspects, such as CPO load, how much traffic … things like this. Sometimes we learn about the blocked sites when people call in and ask why their blog has been blocked. Then we know.”
At first, the regime banned around 300 websites, but as internet use grew throughout the country –- from 1 percent of the population in 2000 to 37 percent as of last November –- the blacklist bloated to more than 2,000. When the government started going after proxies, Saadaoui said, the number jumped to many thousands. He estimated that around a thousand of the blocked sites were political, and the rest were proxies.
The revolution began Dec. 17 in the central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, when 26-year-old fruit vendor Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest the humiliating tactics of local officials. The suicide jolted Tunisians. They began to protest in the streets — and clash with police.
Around 100 people died throughout the country. The media, controlled by Ben Ali’s advisers, reported only that criminals were looting.
But videos of the protests, riot police and their victims appeared on Facebook, and bloggers began reporting the daily events with first-hand accounts, photographs and videos. This information helped drive the uprising, and the government responded by allegedly hijacking Tunisian Facebook passwords.
At the same time, hackers began to attack the Tunisian government’s control over the internet. They bombed the ATI’s DNS and website, and tried to bomb the e-mail centipede gateway. The National Computer Security Agency — which fights hacking, phishing, viruses and fraud — took on the activists who tried to overload government websites with distributed denial-of-service attacks.
“When the hackers did DDOS they did a good job, and Anonymous did a good job,” Saadaoui says, smiling. “But not on everything. They weren’t able to take down the DNS, they weren’t able to take down the main servers or the network, but they were able to DDOS websites. They were able to bomb Ben Ali’s website.”
Open, But Uncertain, Future
Since Ben Ali fled the country Jan. 14, the transitional government has removed several restrictions on internet use while the 60-person ATI aims to focus on tasks more befitting an internet regulator: providing bandwidth and IP numbers, DNS management, IP addresses, research and development, electronic commerce, and web hosting. The agency is also the ISP for all public institutions.
How the dictator-less Tunisia will rebuild its internet architecture is still being discussed, Saadaoui says. But one optimistic sign is that 33-year-old blogger and activist Slim Amamou, who was arrested during the revolt, is now the secretary of state for youth and sports. The Ministry of Communications and Technology has announced that anyone who has a SMTP server can have direct access to the internet without going through the governmental post office.
The interface that allows the government to block sites, however, still exists. Saadaoui promises that it will be used only to block pornography, child pornography, nudity and “hate,” using URL classifiers.
“The new government told us to keep the filtering engines where they are and to allow them to add categories that they don’t like,” Saadaoui says. “The difference now is that they will ask a judge to approve the filtering. The problem is not filtering, the problem is who filters and based on what law. Before, people would filter without applying the law, and now we will filter with a judicial mandate. And the current mandate is to block pornography, pedophilia, nudity and hate.”
Many Tunisians, such as Amamou and the hackers who fought the ATI during the revolution, prefer a completely open internet. Saadaoui disagrees. He says the current filters are necessary on a political level: “The limits are symbolic. It’s a message from the government that we are a Muslim and conservative society and that we would appreciate if you didn’t go to these [filtered] sites.
Besides, Saadaoui says, everyone knows how to sidestep the restrictions, anyway.
“Tunisia has a lot of young, open people who know how to go around filters via hotspot proxies,” he says. “So really it’s useless to block. Whatever we do, there are ways to get around it.”
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