Is Internet Censorship Returning to Tunisia?

Countries Mar 18, 2021

Tunisia was a rather repressive country under the rule of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. At that time, the censorship of email and social networking sites flourished. Tunisia's government's addiction to Internet censorship has gone so far as to redirect Tunisian users to fake government-created homepages for Google, Yahoo, and Facebook. Authorities used these pages to steal the usernames and passwords of the country's residents.

When Tunisian Internet journalists began publishing reports of the uprising, the state used their login credentials to delete the materials. A common hacker tactic – using fake web pages to steal passwords – is being adopted by agents and supporters of repressive regimes.

And while the practice of cybercrimes has apparently been phased out following the ouster of Ben Ali's government in January, the new government is not going to completely relinquish control of the Internet. Just weeks after coming to power, the new administration announced that it would continue to block sites contrary to the norms of decency, and those containing elements of violence or inciting hatred.

For example, a Tunisian court once ordered the Tunisian Internet Agency (known by the French acronym ATI) to block access to all pornographic sites that have become available as a result of the removal of state censorship in the country. The court ruling was issued on the lawsuit of three Tunisian citizens who pointed out that free access to pornographic content is harmful to young people's education and is contrary to the laws of Islam.

Also, a Tunisian court ordered the authorities to censor two online games that allegedly push teenagers to commit suicide. This situation has sparked public concern about self-harm, but also about arbitrary Internet censorship. The court decision called on the Tunisian Internet Agency to block access to online games Blue Whale and Mariam, although ATI has no legal authority to block online content.

Blue Whale is a decentralized online game that challenges players to complete specific tasks, including physically harming themselves. According to some documented cases, players are tasked with committing suicide after 50 days. Mariam is a famous horror game developed in Saudi Arabia, the essence of which is to help a lost girl get home.

In addition to the fact that by executing the court order to "block" the Blue Whale ATI will go beyond its legal rights, the court also does not recognize the game's decentralized nature. The Blue Whale game is not hosted on any platform, but is managed by different anonymous administrators interacting with players through private chats on social networks.

For Tunisian users who witnessed Internet censorship before the revolution and its dire consequences, the recent court order represents a step in the wrong direction.