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Tunisia: Goodbye Ben Ali, hello (internet) freedom

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The first glimmerings of internet liberalisation were evident in Tunisia this weekend.

CNN reports that filters on popular sites such as Facebook and YouTube have been lifted, and this appears to have led to speedier access speeds across the local internet.

Whether this is enough to placate a populace enraged by years of cronyism and a government crackdown on unrest that has left scores dead is quite another matter.

In a speech designed to reduce tensions and start a return to "normal politics", President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, whose 23-year rule has been the focus for violent unrest, announced at the weekend that he will not run again for office. He added that the government intended to allow a return to internet freedom, and then he promptly disappeared, possibly to seek refuge in Saudi Arabia.

According to reports in al Jazeera, the government almost instantly made good on this promise, as restrictions on sites such as YouTube and Dailymotion were lifted.

The Committee to Protect Journalists also reported at the weekend that three Tunisian journalists – including two bloggers critical of Ben Ali – have been freed from jail.

In recent reports, the army appeared to be closing in on members of Ben Ali's regime, while an interim government prepares to name a cabinet free of his cronies. The clashes were still continuing in the city centre as this story was being published.

The importance of online media in reporting the situation in Tunisia to the outside world as events unfolded was confirmed in a report by Reporters Without Borders, which condemned the reinforcement of online censorship while noting the growing role played by online media in the first week in January. They wrote: "Online social networks have played a key role in transmitting news and information about the situation in Sidi Bouzid and other regions while the government-controlled traditional media have mostly ignored the story.

"The international media took some time to get interested in the subject but then found themselves barred from the sensitive areas."

The group noted the blocking of various foreign media, including pages from France 24, Deutsche Welle, and the BBC.

Activists – including a section of 4Chan’s denizens - responded in the same week with a DDOS attack on Tunisia's governmental websites.

An online war was set in motion, as grassroots protests were organised and supported through online networks centered on Twitter and Facebook, while according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the government retaliated by phishing passwords for its own citizens on sites such as Facebook and Gmail "in order to access their content, contact lists, and other personal information".

Blogging, too, has historically been a dangerous activity in Tunisia, with that country identified by Threatened Voices as the fourth most dangerous in the world, behind China, Iran, and Egypt.

So far so good. And improved internet access cannot be bad news for a country that has in recent years been advertising itself as a prime location for businesses – particularly those with a French-speaking customer base – wishing to outsource their services.

Still, al Jazeera reports, many Tunisians are sceptical, seeing this relaxation of censorship as merely temporary – a palliative designed to take the heat off the government for now.

Or, more graphically, as they report one Tunisian as tweeting, it cost the lives of dozens of Tunisians in the unrest to reap net freedom – though obviously the unrest had no such cause in mind – making YouTube "the most expensive website ever". ®

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