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Tunisia’s Big Brother helped shut down websites

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Tunisia’s former government of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was instrumental in its pressure on bloggers and independent websites, using technology to shut down many websites in opposition to the president’s rule. A new report issued on Tuesday detailed how the government attempted to close websites it deemed were against the government.

Many Tunisian residents had their emails spied on (image: stock.xchng)

Activists and bloggers have dubbed the “Error 404” message that came with the blockage “Ammar 404” and are worried and frustrated that the technology was largely provided to Tunis by American and European operators to the former regime to keep tabs on the opposition leading up to the country’s revolution in January this year.

As a result of the technology, electronic communication in the country was arduous and worrisome for users, who never knew if their emails would arrive at their destination intact. According to Amnesty International, the Western technology enabled government agents to change the content of emails while they were in transit.

Asma Hedi Nairi, a former Amnesty International youth coordinator, said that emails she and her friends exchanged were replaced by messages ranging from random symbols to ads for rental cars.

Opponents of the regime toppled in January’s revolution received threatening messages such as “you can run but you can’t hide,” while people with no role in politics found their correspondence snagged if it inadvertently included words flagged as critical of the government. “Ammar 404” even damaged reputations by inserting pornographic images in work e- mails and routing intimate photos onto Facebook, Nairi reported.

“Ammar 404 was seeing everything,” says Nairi, who is studying in Tunis for a master’s degree in criminal sciences.

Michal Ghazouri, a 24-year-old young blogger, who began reporting on the inklings of uprising in December 2010, told that most people understood “that this was the government attempting to try and force us to stop doing what we were doing.”

However, he said “a lot of my family asked me to stop sending them emails because of the images that often arrived with any message, or the fear that the government would start following their emails and systems, so it did hurt the social fabric of our society.”

Still, the use of the technology emboldened the younger generation, who took to the streets en masse to demand an end to the Ben Ali era. Although successful, they are worried that because the technology exists in the country and as the new government has not established legislation against its use, it could arise once again if the government does not adhere to the democratic principles of a new Tunisia.

“Certainly this all worries us and how the future plays out,” continued Ghazouri, “but at the same time we are confident that if any security agency in the country tries to play with our emails, there will be widespread anger and we won’t stand for it. Tunisians said enough in January and we won’t stop fighting if we have to.”

For Nairi, the use of “Ammar 404” and other technology trolls has left her with a frustrating feeling. She told Bloomberg news agency that this technology is “more dangerous than any policeman in the street. It was a war of information.”

The youth and the rights activists who demanded a new future for their country seem to have come out on top, with a new parliament elected less than two months ago and an interim president voted in this week, but the idea that Big Brother is lurking at every corner has bloggers like Ghazouri on edge. They hope that these companies will be tried for the invasion of privacy meted out by their hands.

“It only makes sense that these companies face justice for the problems and rights violations that they helped participate in,” he said.

The use of these technologies by the Ben Ali regime have subsequently been followed by the governments in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain in attempting to crackdown on its citizens for speaking out and fomenting change in their countries. The international providers, however, have yet to withdraw their products, which has led many across the Middle East to be frustrated that Big Brother most likely will not be going away in the near future.

Jonathan Terry

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