Tunisia Cyber-Crime Law Threatens Internet Progress

A leaked draft for a new cybercrime law in Tunisia is raising concerns among its citizens, reports Global Voices Online. In the past couple of years Tunisia has gained attention as an exemplary pioneer in recognizing Internet rights and freedoms in the MENA region. This proposed law, however, is far-reaching and vague in its language. Although it has not yet been submitted (and it is not even certain whether it will be submitted in time for the October elections), its release is already prompting animated discussion among Tunisian professionals and activists.


Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki. Photo: Chatham House / Flickr

Tunisia gained international notoriety in 2012 after joining and hosting the Freedom Online Coalition. The Coalition’s primary aim is “to facilitate a global dialogue about the responsibilities of governments from around the world in pro-actively furthering freedom on the internet.” In a statement at the 2012 Nairobi Convention, Chairman and CEO of the Tunisian Internet Agency Moez Chakchouk expressed a clear intention to encourage more African membership in the FOC by 2013.

This progress comes after over a decade of aggressive online censorship and surveillance. Political dissidence and vocal advocates of digital freedoms were arrested under the Ben Ali dictatorship. Citizens referred to Internet policy during his presidency as “Ammar 404” in reference to the infamous error message that would appear on censored websites.

After the revolution, Internet freedoms became a key priority for the interim government. In 2014 Tunisia rose five spots from the previous year in the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index. In January 2014, Tunisia adopted a new constitution “enshrining the rights to access communication networks, personal data protection, and freedom of expression.”

The proposed cyber-crime law contains a significant amount of content reminiscent of Ben Ali’s repressive regime.

One article proposes a six-month prison sentence and fine equivalent to $2,900 for “obscene acts and assaulting good morals” online, increasing to three years’ imprisonment in the case of content that encourages “immorality.”

It also allows extensive monitoring capabilities to public authorities, granting access to “data stored in public or private databases.” The draft law would give the Minister of Higher Education the authority to monitor social media pages “inciting to violence,” with a particular focus on online communities that may be hubs for terrorist activity.

Tunisian professionals took to Twitter after the draft was leaked to voice their discontent. Critics are calling the law “an arm of mass destruction” and “the Tunisian version of the PATRIOT Act.”

In a reference to the recent assassination of a Tunisian politician, one Tunisian predicts that the next political scandal will not be an assassination but rather a dissident who is arrested for “assaulting good morals.”

Tunisian authorities have responded to the public’s concerns with reassurances and justifications for the cyber-crime law. It is an extension of work from the previous interim government to formulate a cohesive digital policy. Government officials explain this law would be an attempt to clarify and strengthen the legal framework for online security in Tunisia. Among other things, advocates of the law hope it will consolidate the Technical Telecommunications Agency under one set of laws and practices.

Officials have addressed the need for specific cyber-crime policy in the current legal structure. The government cites concern about terrorism threats, although many Tunisians fear that this justification will lead the way to decreased citizen’s rights.

Comparing the draft law to the PATRIOT Act in the US, critics wonder whether the threat of terrorism will lead to a similar debate between national security and individual freedoms. At present, authorities assure the public that there is no intention to engage in any online filtering or censorship.