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.
Monday, January 31, 2011
Exclusive: Tunisia Internet Chief Gives Inside Look at Cyber Uprising