I remember, during what-so-called “Ben Ali’s era” before the Arab Spring, a movement «Sayab Salah Ya Ammar» or «404», by the Tunisians, to express their demand for the right of “having unrestricted access to data” in a funny way. In my opinion, I would consider that as the first revolutionary movement for freedom of expression. It was their scream against the National Policy, which was limiting the Tunisian access to certain websites such as YouTube, some URLs on Facebook, and even certain profiles. In short, the government used to block any link it might be considered “inappropriate” with no additional explanation.The Policy, back then, was not only based on forbidding access but also controlling people’s thoughts and publications.
The way people were arrested for sharing their opinion on the net, even with anonymous profiles and the daily pursuit of pages to control them were clearly showing how the regime manipulated and restricted the people’s right to gain free access to the Internet. These actions were used to be handled by the Tunisian internet agency.
It’s ridiculously ironic that entire departments of the government, instead of working on developing new perspectives for the future of the Internet in Tunisia by creating innovative programs; they were working on banning the Tunisians from surfing the Internet!
Despite its virtual presence and simplicity of that movement that time, we couldn’t deny that «Sayab Salah» was a big buzz and kind of a courageous starting point for youth. It was an attempt to reconsider their rights and to experience their potentials.
Another ironic fact, which shows how the right of freedom of expression and access to information were both important for the Tunisians, was when the situation was getting worse for Ben Ali. When he was no longer able to contain the angry of the streets, his third speech came, against any odds, very smooth and apologizing, promising a positive change and more endurance to human rights.
And guess what! The first step he did to show his good will, in terms of Internet access and freedom of speech, was making sure that websites, like YouTube, are opened and unblocked to the Tunisians
I remember, during that time, that I have seen lots of funny posts, especially on Facebook, encouraging people to stop protesting (and not doing what was called later as “revolution”), in order celebrate the “returning of YouTube”!
In fact, YouTube was not unblocked for real! We had to go through the agency’s proxies in order to reach the website. In other words, they were monitoring everything we do on YouTube, every click or video was monitored. It wasn’t “unblocking”, it was more like a “Big Brother” behavior!
Three years later, after the revolution in Tunisia, I was invited, as a guest speaker, in the national innovation day. One of the speakers was the head of the Tunisian internet agency. He was talking about the new strategy and the policy of the agency saying that there would be very inspiring changes and new goals in order to assure the freedom of expression, and having free and reliable access to data. I noticed the difference between the role of the agency before the revolution and now, despite the critical transition period we were in. I found his speech, however, ambitious; but in the same time realistic, as he is speaking in a way that there would be some new practices and a new vision of a better virtual Tunisian lifestyle.
I woke up from this dream, with the presenter of the event, trying to be cool, maybe, saying that: “all I care about, from what you are saying, is that you will no longer restrict our access to porn websites!” The majority of the audience were laughing, agreeing and even applauding!
I should mention that the attendees of that event were supposed to be the elite of Tunisian society, from experts and youth, so I was somewhat disappointed.
That shows another side of the coin – if you want to build for IG: you can’t count only on governmental or private agencies. In other words, laws can be interpreted in different ways, according to whom in power.
All those efforts won’t be suitable without a deep involvement of the society that should understand what it is IG about clearly, and why it is important?