What's Happening in Tunisia?

Students spell out 'Free Tunisia'

On December 17th, a 26 year-old unemployed university graduate named Mohamed Bouazizi drenched himself in petrol and set himself on fire in the central Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid in protest of economic conditions. Bouazizi, who succumbed to his injuries early this morning, had been the sole breadwinner for his family when his unlicensed produce stand was confiscated by local police.

With greater than 30% unemployment rates for those between the ages of 15 and 29, the circumstances surrounding Bouazizi's suicide attempt are not unique:

"...the issue of unemployment has been serious for a long time, especially among young graduates. The sectors where there has been development and jobs have been mainly low-skilled... three-quarters of Tunisia's exports go to Europe and the financial crisis there has fuelled the situation. In addition, there is frustration at the lack of freedom of expression and the possibilities to participate politically."

The protests that have already claimed the lives of at least three are remarkable on several fronts: relatively unprecedented, they have drawn support from many sectors of society - trade unions, students, lawyers syndicates. They have gone largely unremarked-upon in the Western media. They have effectively and creatively relied on technology and new media to sustain and share their message, despite remarkable levels of censorship. They have been assisted by external online activists, notably the collective known as Anonymous. Allies of the regime have reportedly engaged equally enthusiastically, utilising phishing, censoring, and hacking against activists.

There are many opinions on the political implications - we'll leave that to pundits and scholars. What interests us here is what's happening with communications and technology, as protesters and the government vie to win not only the social media war, but through hacking, censorship, and circumvention.

Since I've written about the importance of information as a democracy factor lately, its worth noting that there has been remarkably little about the Sidi Bouzid protests in the Tunisian domestic or Western media (Al-Jazeera has had fairly extensive coverage). Some reasons for the near-blackout in the Western media are covered by former CNN correspondent Octavia Nasr in her post on the differences between the Tunisian protests and the Iranian 'Green Revolution'; but as Brian Whitaker of the Guardian notes, it may also be a case of retrospective realization of the significance of these events.

Domestically the lack of media coverage has a different, almost dystopian quality, the result of the absence of an independent Tunisian media. In the first days of the protests, a Tunisian on Twitter reportedly questioned the existence of protests: he had seen nothing in the state media to prove they existed. When Al-Jazeera started coverage in earnest, the president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, sacked Minister of Communications Oussame Romdhani, citing damage to the country's image as a result of manipulation by the foreign media.

In the absence of international and domestic news coverage, the protests have largely been documented online (as well as coordinated and supported). This is somewhat revolutionary in itself; the nature of censorship in Tunisia has been well documented, notably by exiled activist and writer Sami Ben Gharbia, as well as by the bloggers at Global Voices. Counter-actions by Tunisian activists, including the 2010 404/Day Against Censorship protests, have been pointed and sustained. Tunisia is among the world's most pervasively repressive online environments - the censorship apparatus, nicknamed 'Ammar', even has its own Facebook and Twitter accounts. The researcher Jillian York writes:

[Tunisia's] censors are among the most sophisticated and the most pervasive in the world.  Despite being under the guise of democracy (not unlike Iran) and secularism (not unlike Syria), Tunisia censors media and Internet at the surface level, and also regularly imprisons those who speak out or protest against the regime, including bloggers (in 2009, Tunisia was ranked by CPJ as one of the ten worst places to be a blogger).

As opponents and allies of the government have clashed, otherwise neutral platforms like Facebook have emerged as contested spaces, subject to conflicting narratives and struggles over space, access, and control. In addition to the battle over messaging as both sides advance alternate versions of events, some pro- and anti-government allies have enlisted censoring and hacking, attempting to control access to identities, networks, and forums.

The messaging, organizing, and newsgathering operations online have benefited from the skills of a disciplined, savvy and experienced cadre of activists. The well-established site Nawaat has been following along with long-form articles on its main site, as well as short, timely news and blog posts on a separate Posterous account. (The use of Posterous, a format-flexible blog-by-email platform, is particularly clever way of sharing updates in a country that censors by IP address).

In Tunisia, as elsewhere, the most critical tools appear to be the tools activists already use; its for this reason that much of the censorship attempts and attacks have been directed at platforms and services such as Gmail, Facebook, and Twitter (it is worth noting that YouTube is not among the tools; it has been censored in Tunisia since November 2007. Despite this, there are more than 590 videos tagged #sidibouzid at last count). There have also been reports of internet outages throughout the country, although no domestic media coverage or confirmation.

There are accounts that that the regime has returned to phishing and spoofing, manipulating users into volunteering their own account information, through forged certificates, sites, and embedded JavaScript functions. The Tech Herald, which has produced excellent coverage of the events thus far, provides a detailed explanation of the nature, origin, history and function of the spoofing, finds fault directly with the government:

The Tunisian Internet Agency (Agence tunisienne d'Internet or ATI) is being blamed for the presence of injected JavaScript that captures usernames and passwords. The code has been discovered on login pages for Gmail, Yahoo, and Facebook, and said to be the reason for the recent rash of account hijackings reported by Tunisian protesters.

ATI is run by the Tunisian Ministry of Communications. They supply all of the privately held Tunisian ISPs, making them the main source of Internet access in the country. They’ve been under scrutiny for years, due to the fact that they make use of their authority to regulate the entire national network. Last April, ATI earned international attention by blocking access to sites such as Flickr, YouTube, and Vimeo.

Since I began writing this post, the profiles of a few activists I had been following have found their accounts locked and profile pictures replaced by the curious - and incongruous - image of the Pirate Bay ship (associated closely with the Anonymous movement); a consequence of which these account owners and their networks lose access to all posted material associated with their accounts. When I asked how these accounts were being compromised, @walidsa3d on Twitter responded that it appears to be a combination of brute force hacking, phishing, and reporting profiles directly to Facebook for TOS violations.

Other activists have reported hacking of activist pages and censoring of the IPs for Facebook account management, effectively blocking users from updating passwords, privacy settings, or other personal information. Potentially more insidious are reports that the security forces are hacking accounts not to block users, but to infiltrate networks, identify organizers, and disrupt activities. This morning, prominent activist Sami Ben Gharbia reported his Gmail account hacked. Global Voices has more coverage of attacks on bloggers here.

Last week blogger Ulrike Reihard interviewed writer, professor, and Global Voices blogger Lina Ben Mhenni, who says the regime began censoring her Twitter account in the days immediately following the protests, in addition to previous censorship of her blog and Facebook accounts (she is one of the victims of Facebook hacking mentioned above). Mhenni reports systemic censorship of certain activist profiles on Facebook and an inability to upload videos to the site (according to website Tunisie Numerique, this appears to be an issue of throttling). Mhenni's full interview with Reihard is here.

Reporters San Frontiers has a good roundup of blocked sites, Facebook targeting, and the ongoing efforts to censor activists and media. The regime also appears to have begun censoring secure HTTPS addresses, forcing users to login using insecure plaintext, putting them at risk for account compromise (activists are recommending Tor as a workaround). According to Mhenni, ISPs have also begun imposing caps on data uploads and downloads to prevent large file transfers. 

There are also reports that mobile and mobile data (3G) networks have failed to work in areas around demonstrations, activists had previously used these data networks to record and live-stream protests and events as they occurred in real time; this had a dual purpose of acting as a deterrent to security services as well as a record of events. Despite these challenges, Mhenni notes that the ubiquity of communications technology (roughly 20% of Tunisians, or 2 million people, are on Facebook) has undermined the credibility of the regime as it sought to dismiss the protests and events as isolated incidents. The pan-Arab human rights site Kafa Samtan, Enough Silence, interviews Mhenni along with journalist Sofiene Chourabi in greater depth [Arabic].

The anti-government protestors have found an unexpected ally in Anonymous, the group best known for conducting DDOS attacks linked to events surrounding Wikileaks. Anonymous has taken credit for DDOS attacks against 8 government websites, including that of the Presidency. In seeming acknowledgement of the debate over DDOS as a legitimate resistance technique, Anonymous has also made efforts to mobilize its amorphous activists to support Tunisians by running Tor circumvention clients - 'Operation Tornisia' - as well as encouraging Tunisians to install anti-phishing defenses.

While the protests continue, and the online battle unfolds, Twitter remains one of the best sources of raw information. One recent tweet estimated the number of #sidibouzid tweets at 28,000/hour since the 27th of December - a virtual firehose. Unsurprisingly, the tweetstream is equal parts facts, sloganeering, punditry, and solidarity; it requires careful reading to find informative sources of information and updates. Following the Twitter account of Nawaat would be a good place to start.

Lest it all be bad news, @weddady on Twitter wanted me to point out that censorship has given Tunisia a new musical genre - the anti-censorship protest song. Enjoy. Updated: And protest hip-hop!

Update 2: While the protest hip-hop continues, it takes a serious turn: Le General, a Tunisian rapper, is reported arrested tonight.