Frequent Slashdot contributor Bennett Haselton writes "Tunisia's high court will decide on Wednesday whether to allow censoring of websites containing pornography or 'calls to violence.' It's disappointing that censorship continues in post-revolutionary Tunisia, but it's enough of an improvement over the old regime, that anti-censorship cyber-activism efforts would probably best be spent on helping other countries." Read on for Bennett's analysis.
In Tunisia, where dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was ousted one year ago amid hopes for a new era of freedom, the high court will decide on Wednesday whether to censor foreign pornographic websites in accordance with local law. Facebook pages that "call for violence" may also be blocked. Conveniently, all the machinery for censoring the Internet in Tunisia is already in place, having been installed under Ben Ali's dictatorship for the purposes of censoring and spying on Tunisian citizens (and, for a while, phishing their Facebook passwords). The irony recalls the situation in Iraq in 2009, when the government announced plans to start censoring foreign websites -- to which Iraqi citizens complained that they thought censorship would end with the fall of Saddam's regime. Actually, apart from the three outlier countries of Turkey, Israel and Lebanon, pornography remains illegal in every Middle Eastern country (and some conservative African nations), including the recently "liberated" ones including Egypt, Iraq and Tunisia. (Although, Iraq's street market in pornography thrives as long as the police have better things to do.)
I'm against such censorship in principle -- I think that even the right to publish and access pornography counts as a fundamental human right. But I think we have to take what progress we can get, and censoring just pornography and calls to violence, is a big improvement over censoring pornography and dissident political speech, which is the norm in most non-"liberated" Middle Eastern countries like Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Syria blocks foreign opposition sites like All4Syria.info, Iran blocks Facebook and YouTube to keep dissidents from posting or viewing anti-government material, and Saudi Arabia blocks Reporters Without Borders and filters the Amnesty International report on human rights in Saudi Arabia (but not the rest of the Amnesty International site!).
Saudi Arabia blocking the Amnesty International report on human rights in their country (while leaving the rest of the site unblocked), in particular, seems like the kind of thing that a government would do more as a "fuck you" to human rights activists, than a means to achieve a practical goal. For one thing, most of the facts in the human rights report about Saudi Arabia -- about sex discrimination and lack of political and religious freedom -- are already well known to the people who live there. And secondly, what percent of the citizens of a country would ever read the Amnesty International report on human rights in that country, even if it were not blocked? How many Americans even know that Amnesty puts out an annual report about human rights violations in the United States? So it seems more like a symbolic move to remind everyone who's in charge. For all the disappointment in the lack of progress for free speech in post-"liberation" countries, the non-"liberated" ones are indeed worse.
As for the Tunisian proposal to censor "calls to violence", I wouldn't always be against that, even in principle. In most countries, direct incitements to violence can be considered illegal (it depends on what you say and, of course, on what judge you get). In a developing country rife with ethnic tensions, even greater restrictions on calls to violence could be justified. When you finally watched Hotel Rwanda , weren't you hoping someone would bust in on that radio DJ telling everyone to kill Tutsis in the middle of a civil war, and blow him to hell? The biggest problem with a rule against "calls to violence" is that the government could stretch the definition to silence political speech. But it's possible to keep that kind of abuse in check, as has mostly been achieved in the U.S. For that, what you need is an independent judiciary, not an abolishment of all rules against calls to violence.
So the free-speech situation in "liberated" Tunisia may be nothing to write home about, but it sounds much better than it used to be, when writing home to complain about it could get you arrested. A Wall Street Journal article from July 2011 describes how, under Ben Ali's dictatorship, Tunisian cyber-activist Slim Amamou had been imprisoned and abused by the police for calling for peaceful demonstrations. Post-revolution, he was freed and asked to join the interim government, where the strictest restriction placed on him was to "stop sending Twitter messages during internal government meetings to his 25,000 followers". They may not have their porn, but that's still progress.
Of course, if someone in Tunisia wants to circumvent the government filters (using tools like proxy sites, VPNs, Tor, UltraSurf, Psiphon, etc.) and get to a porn site, more power to them. I just wouldn't make it a priority to set aside resources to help them get it. Not while there are Iranians who need help getting around the latest restrictions blocking them from Facebook and Gmail.
Two caveats. First, if someone wants to sell circumvention services to Tunisians who just want to get around the porn blocker, that doesn't count as "setting aside resources", so that's a perfectly noble endeavor. In fact, given the economies of scale in the circumvention business, selling to Tunisians could help to bring the price down for other users, including users in countries like Saudi Arabia where the government does engage in political filtering, and where circumvention services could be a tool for social change. Second, providing circumvention services (free or paid) to Tunisians, does probably make it less likely that the new government would revert to political censorship, knowing that many of its citizens have the tools to beat it, even if those tools are only currently used to access porn sites. So to that extent, setting aside resources to provide circumvention services in Tunisia might be a worthwhile cause.
Still, I think it's a lot less important than using circumvention tools to fight political censorship in truly autocratic countries like Iran. For the next generation of proxy servers that I'm rolling out, I'm working on setting aside some of them just for Iranian IP addresses. Even if Iranians just use them to get on Facebook, that's still contributes more to advancing the cause of social democracy, than Tunisians using them to get on Playboy.