Tunisia: Testing ground for Western companies’ censorship software

On day one of the 3rd Arab Arab Bloggers Meeting, Moez Chakchouk the new chairman and CEO of the Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI) revealed that Ben Ali’s Tunisia was used as a testing ground for censorship software developed in Western countries. Also see Al JAzeera English Yasmine Ryan’s recent interview. Now that one stage in the revolution is complete he calls on bloggers, activists, and politicians to ensure such censorship will have no place in a new Tunisia. Revealing the nefarious plots of Western companies in Tunisia has implications for other countries and the global movement for human rights.

In 2008 Naomi Klein revealed that with secret funding from US congress and illegal contracts with US firms, China developed its sophisticated surveillance networks. Surveillance networks that have been used to monitor, suppress, arrest, torture, murder, and quash popular attempts for freedoms and human rights. Her article raised serious questions about Western culpability in supporting brutal crackdowns on popular protest and human rights defenders. Now, with the overthrowing of oppressive regimes in Tunisia and Egypt it is timely to return to this discussion. What role has the West played in supplying oppressive regimes with the technology to suppress? How has such certification empowered repression?

Still, with changes in local laws across the United States and Europe, Charles Tilly among others have pointed out a trend of dedemocratization. Tilly writes:

“Contrary to the comforting image of democracy as a secure cave into which people can retreat forever from the buffeting of political storms, most regimes that have taken significant steps toward democracy over the last two centuries have later de-democractized at least temporarily. A surprising number of regimes that actually installed functioning democratic institutions then returned to authoritarianism.”

This has implications for revolution. Once the tyrant, the target of the revolution is overthrown, the revolution is far from over. Democracy does not cling to elections alone. And to ensure a proper transfer to democracy requires a robust system of free expression and access to information, uncensored media, access to education, and the ability to question and share ideas and criticisms. This is not a one hemisphere definition of democracy. What this means is that repression, surveillance, censorship, these are not isolated problems of the ‘developing world,’ as offensive as many postcolonialist scholars find that word, these are global problems that connect all human life.

In his presentation Moez lays out a clear outline of how these interconnected systems worked under Ben Ali. His slideshow is available online. The importance of these realizations in indisputable. A revolution is not a single event isolated within a single country. The connection between nations, the exchange of repressive strategies and techniques from the School of the Americas to US backed Indonesian Death Squads–revealed in 2010 by Alan Nairn–to the recent evidence of Tunisia’s significance in the war on censorship reveals a global trend. Only by cleaving apart the individual episodes of repression and resistance, by understanding the transferable mechanisms and processes, will those who have been voiceless to question and powerless to oppose begin to form boundary-spanning claims for human rights.

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