On the fifth anniversary of its revolution, Tunisia had much to celebrate, many lessons still to learn, and a lot of best practices and case studies to provide to other countries. However, the upheavals in the region make Tunisia’s own fitful democratic transition challenging to adopt a hopeful vision for the future of democracy in the country. Yet as grim as things may sometimes look, there is no choice but to stay optimistic for the course towards Internet freedom, a strong Internet governance ecosystem, and the social justice that Tunisia is willing to persistently pursue.
From the Higher Authority for Realization of the Objectives of the Revolution to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, Tunisia’s civil society has played a key role in building a democratic path towards dialogue and compromise. Last year, the Quartet, a coalition of civil society groups formed in the summer of 2013 when Tunisia teetered between democracy and chaos, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for its main contribution and the decisive role played in the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia.”
Beyond Political Crisis, Civil Society Continues to Play its Role
Beyond averting political crisis, civil society continues its work across different fields to build a culture of debate for Internet freedoms and civic engagement, furthering reform agendas and asserting principles of accountability, transparency, and neutrality for the Internet. With such successes, it is essential to safeguard Tunisian civil society’s role and assert the government’s commitment to freedom of association.
Tunisia can set an example of commitment to balancing Internet freedoms and state security concerns, by taking concrete measures that ensure transparency and accountability on the alleged lack of Internet freedoms that has often been used by governments to clamp down on civil society in the region.
As the country breathes life into its constitution, establishes democratic practices, and thinks through solutions to challenges across the spectrum, Tunisians themselves must develop their vision for the country. The work of Tunisian civil society is equally valuable to flesh out new solutions in partnership with the country’s different actors, including the government and parliament, private sector actors, and academia.
On December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself ablaze in the city of Sidi Bouzid, which, along with other cities such as Kasserine, Gafsa, Kef, and Seliana, triggered the initial spark of the revolution. Five years later, however, all those cities remain symbols of poverty, lack of economic incentives, poor Internet infrastructure, and youth disillusionment.
Bouazizi’s act was in protest against the country’s lack of economic opportunities, corruption of the authorities, and the humiliations they caused to ordinary Tunisians. His sacrifice leads to the mass strikes and demonstrations that not only ousted Ben Ali but spread across the region.
ATI Reforms: New Hope for an Internet Governance Model
The Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI) was the government body responsible for Internet censorship and the massive investments in filtering and monitoring technologies under the old regime. Since its foundation in 1996, it has adopted one of the most comprehensive filtering, monitoring, and censorship systems in the country. These activities were immediately canceled after the revolution.
If the practice of filtering is to be reintroduced on a limited scale, it would require securing complex technologies to filter the Internet at a national level. Such an act would require time and money and should be avoided because censorship should no longer be brought back in any form or shape. The Internet in Tunisia should enjoy total liberty!
ATI announced just after the revolution the end of its Internet control and censorship role. Even though it does not handle that for now, its statute remains at the same. However, a new agency has been founded, called the Tunisian Telecommunication Agency (ATT), which is responsible for providing technical support to judicial investigations into crimes related to information systems and communications. It is very important to note that ATT was founded without public oversight and has such broad competencies that it could constitute a form of control and censorship of Internet.
My recommendation is that ATT should conduct investigations without affecting individual and public liberties. Its decisions should be duly reasoned and open to review by competent jurisdictions. All decisions taken and regulations adopted should be made available to the public in an appropriate manner.
Former CEO of ATI, Moez Chakchouk, adopted a public policy strategy in an attempt to achieve a “reconciliation with the past.” He took the stage at the 3rd Annual Arab Bloggers Conference in Tunis to publicly declare that Western IT companies had tested surveillance software in Tunisia and were thus indirectly responsible for the unjust imprisonment and torture of hundreds of individuals. While he stopped short of giving the names of the companies due to confidentiality agreements, his statement marked a dramatic turning point for the country.
After the censorship of voice-over-Internet protocol (VoIP) in Morocco, Tunisia today stands as the only Arab country that enjoys unrestricted access to the Internet and network neutrality. The National Telecommunication Authority (INT) repealed the decision of three network operators in Tunisia – Ooredoo, Tunisie Telecom, and Orange – to shut down VoIP calls. A free and uncensored Tunisian Internet can lead the country to be a strong digital economy hub in Africa and the MENA region.
In order to facilitate this, significant support from various governments and intergovernmental bodies is needed to implement solutions in line with the Tunisian vision for economic development. This cannot be fulfilled with a censored Internet amidst the ongoing security and terrorism threats. Civil society and its supporters can help build bridges between Tunisians and their peers in the Arab and global Internet civil society movements.
The National Digital Divide and the Technology Gap between Rich and Poor
Even as technology becomes more affordable and Internet access seems increasingly ubiquitous, a “national digital divide” between the rich and poor in Tunisia is still evident. The rich people and the intellectual class are still more fortunate than others in having good access to digital resources.
The digital divide has especially far-reaching consequences at the domestic level, compared to the international level, when it comes to the economy, sustainable development, and the quality of secondary and high-level education. For families with low-income school districts, inadequate access to technology can hinder their learning the technology skills that are crucial to success in today’s economy.
Wireless and mobile technologies have helped bridge the divide, as they provide Internet access to populations previously at a digital disadvantage. Among smartphone owners in Tunisia, we see that young adults, minorities, those with no college experience, and those with lower household income levels are more likely to access the Internet primarily through their phones.
Internet speed has important effects on media access and e-commerce, especially when it comes to streaming video. This shows the persistence of a significant gap. Teachers reported that low-income students faced more obstacles in using educational technology effectively, compared to their peers in more affluent schools.
Tunisian schools in the lowest income areas should be supported so they could incorporate technology into their teaching methods. Schools with inadequate access to technology face a major challenge using ICT as a teaching tool for students. Interestingly, urban teachers are more likely to complain about poor access to the Internet at school, while teachers in rural areas are more likely to report that students have poor Internet access at home.
The Internet As a Public Space That Is Not Publicly Owned or Controlled
Civil society in Tunisia should work on raising awareness and building the capacity of local Internet governance stakeholders to produce the best possible outcome.
A set of criteria (e.g. openness, transparency, agenda-setting etc.) are needed to help make multi-stakeholder governance stronger and more straightforward. There are many results that come from the levels of participation of different stakeholders in decision-shaping or decision-making processes. That has been quite evident in the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) and the meetings of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).
Civil society needs more resources to address the knowledge deficit as regards, for example, ICANN, which is a complex body that could only be understood through effective participation with substantial commitment of time and resources. How can civil society keep up?
Even governments of developing countries find it hard to participate effectively in ICANN’s Government Advisory Committee (GAC) and in the IGF. There are Internet-related companies active in ICANN that have more Internet policy experts on staff than there are in the entire administrations of most African governments.
Coordinated efforts are needed to make Internet governance decision-shaping and decision-making spaces accessible and not just open, but also participative, inclusive, and transparent. Knowledge constraints are equally important. The less-informed individuals and institutions are as a result less capable they would be of fully participating in IGFs.
This applies not only to Tunisian civil society but also to governments and businesses from developing countries. This lack of “access,” be it real, perceived, or both, impacts the legitimacy of multi-stakeholder processes.
Finally, shifting from a principle of representation to a principle of participation has produced a set of practices that now self-replicate in new structures. Examples are the network of national, regional, and global IGFs and the potential fractal replication of the national IGF model for the future improvement of Internet governance in Tunisia.