© Internet Society / Alex Masi
Leader of the Internet Society Tunisian Chapter and Global Board Member tells his story of how the Internet helped Tunisans change their lives.
Have you checked your email today?
Perhaps you snapped up the latest online bargains, updated your status on Facebook, caught up with today’s news or chatted to friends on the other side of the world, or decided to try your hand at developing an online tool or application?
The Internet is now such a part of everyday life in some parts of the world that we are in danger of taking it for granted. What if you weren’t allowed to upload videos and photographs to YouTube or Flickr? How would you feel if your online voice were censored, filtered or blocked?
Within the comfortable freedoms afforded by many democracies it is easy to forget that in some parts of the world these liberties are not so readily available.
The Internet Society firmly believes that accessing to an open and global Internet is a key enabler of basic human rights, such as the freedom of expression and the freedom of association. With the many channels open via the Internet, people are now able to stand up and help forge a path that leads to dramatic changes in the democratic freedoms.
Internet Society Board of Trustee Member Khaled Koubaa has firsthand experience of the significance of freedom of expression on the Internet. He is a Tunisian national and since 1997 has been at the forefront of developing Internet policies which allow for better openness on the Internet in Tunisia and across the Arab region, despite opposition and censorship from the government. He is founder and president of the Tunisian Internet Society Chapter and founder of the Arab World Internet Institute, a non-profit, non-governmental regional organisation committed to independent research on the Internet in the Arab World.
Khaled believes the events at the start of 2011 could not have taken place without the resolve of citizens to express their views and have their voice heard across the world. The courage and determination shown by the Tunisian people is widely credited for setting in motion the series of protests and revolts against dictatorial rule in several Arab states.
The Internet played a vital role in aiding protestors and campaigners to communicate and organise themselves through online media as they came together to assert their basic human rights.
Control and Censorship
Prior to the Tunisian uprising, the flow of online information was controlled and censored by the Ben Ali regime. The government essentially owned and controlled the Internet ecosystem in Tunisia. Websites, including YouTube, were blocked, content was censored and many cyber activists risked severe punishment at the hands of the secret police if they attempted to work around these controls.
In December 2010, 26 year old Mohamed Bouazizi self-immolated outside the government offices in Sidi Bouzid. The protests that followed were captured on mobile phones, and transmitted via social media sites across Tunisia. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were used to distribute the voices of activists and protestors.
While mainstream media were still limited in what they could share, the Internet became a primary way the Tunisian people could tell their story.
Internet the Enabler
The Tunisian uprising has been called the Facebook Revolution. Whilst the Internet played a vital role, Khaled is keen to point out that the success of the protest should be attributed to the bravery of individuals, many of them young people.
Free speech has long been a hallmark of a healthy democracy and a free society. The Internet is now widely recognised as one of the most powerful instruments of the 21st century for increasing access to information, and facilitating active citizen participation in building democratic societies. That said, given the great power of the Internet, it can come as no surprise that that there will always be those who attempt to block, control or corrupt it.
The Internet Society believes that the Internet is a global medium that fundamentally supports opportunity, empowerment, knowledge, growth, and freedom and that these values should never be taken away from individuals.
What happens Next?
Khaled continues to work tirelessly to ensure the Internet remains open and free in Tunisia. He has engaged directly with cyber activists and stakeholders from government, the private sector, and civil society to further policies which will allow for an open Internet. His work on human rights has involved workshops and training sessions for journalists and activists to create online discussions and forums, build networks and share information. The challenge now is to ensure that this freedom of expression is preserved for future users of the Internet. Whilst Tunisian government controls on the Internet have been removed, these new freedoms are not as yet protected by legislation so the current situation remains fragile. The voices which first told the story of what was happening in Tunisia must be protected to ensure they can still offer the first line of defence against a return to dictatorship.
Khaled Koubaa’s story and that of his fellow Tunisians perfectly illustrate why human rights have become a key issue for the Internet Society. There is no doubt that every human being should be able to fully enjoy the benefits of access to knowledge, information and communication, a right which should be guaranteed whether in the online or the offline environment. The story told by Tunisian activists shows that the Internet can contribute to the progress of all humankind, and must be allowed to continue to do so.