The social networking website Facebook has been again accessible in Tunisia via its main address (http://www.facebook.com) since 2 p.m. yesterday. Access to this URL had been blocked since 24 August without any explanation being given. Facebook had nonetheless continued to be accessible via other addresses such http://www.it.facebook.com or by using a proxy (online censorship circumvention software). Al Chourouk, a local newspaper, reported today that President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali intervened personally to have access restored.
27.08 - Website blocking shrinks space for online free expression
Access to the social networking website Facebook has been blocked without explanation since 24 August in Tunisia, in a move that reinforces government censorship of the Internet, Reporters Without Borders said.
“The video-sharing websites YouTube and Dailymotion were already blocked, so Tunisian censorship now affects three very popular sites that are not intended to have a political impact,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The authorities want to control online sharing so that dissidents cannot express themselves. It is sad to see the Internet space being shrunk in this way.”
ISPs reported that users were already having problems accessing the Facebook website (http://www.facebook.com) before it was totally blocked on 24 August. Clients of PlaNet, for example, had not been able get to that address since 18 August. The site can nonetheless still be accessed by going to alternative addresses (http://www.new.facebook.com, http://www.www.facebook.com).
According to a study by the Tunisian marketing company Buzz2com, Facebook had 28,313 Tunisian users on 14 August. Some dissidents, such as Mohammed Abbou, had recently created personal pages on Facebook, launching debates about Tunisian society.
“This is an important phenomenon,” an Internet users told Reporters Without Borders. “Many blogs had been closed down but bloggers have been able to debate by creating personal pages on Facebook.” There are six groups on the site, involving just over 5,000 Internet users, where Facebook's closure in Tunisia is being discussed.
Dailymotion has been blocked in Tunisia since 3 September 2007. The blocking of YouTube came a month later, on 2 November. It is still accessible via other addresses such as http://www.fr.youtube.com and http://www.it.youtube.com and via the IP address http://126.96.36.199. When Dailymotion was blocked, it was supposedly because it was a pornographic site.
Email messages are also being filtered. Tests carried out in Tunisia show that some email message arrive empty and disappear from the inbox after being opened. It is impossible to add attachments to email messages in Yahoo! Mail because this facility is turned off. There is a greater chance of being able to read a message with sensitive content in Gmail but it is often impossible to send a reply.
This form of filtering, known as deep packet inspection (DPI), is widely used in China to filter porn sites and those dealing with sensitive issues such as Tibet, the Falun Gong spiritual movement or the June 1989 massacre.
TOR, a programme that enables the user to remain anonymous while on the Internet and to circumvent online censorship, cannot be downloaded in Tunisia.
“This filtering helps to create a state of generalised surveillance as it affects all Internet users and not just dissidents,” Reporters Without Borders added. “The authorities meanwhile try to pass off the censorship as a technical problem.”