Internet Filtering in Tunisia

By: nart on 17 November 2005
Posted in Tunisia

The OpenNet Initiative has just released a report detailing Internet filtering in Tunisia based on technical testing conducted over the last year. We tested Internet access in Tunisia from within the country using local ISPs and found that Tunisia blocks access to material that falls into four rough categories: political opposition to the ruling government, sites on human rights in Tunisia, tools that enable users to circumvent filtering, and pages containing pornography or other sexually explicit content.

Tunisia, like other countries such as Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Sudan, and until recently Iran, uses commercial filtering software called SmartFilter , which is produced by the U.S. company Secure Computing, filtering Internet access in Tunisia. This software is configured to blocked pre-defined categories of content – content classified by SmartFilter – including at least four SmartFilter categories: Anonymizers, Nudity, Pornography, and Sexual Materials.

Building upon this list, Tunisia adds websites to be be blocked that are critical of government. Sites blocked political parties and organizations, such as the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LTDH) (, the unauthorized Congrés Pour la République (CPR) political party ( as well as news and media sites such as
and which provide news and commentary that is critical of the government. Tunisia also blocks international human rights organizations such as, Reporters Without Borders.

Tunisia's Internet filtering is done in a non-transparent way. When users attempt to access a blocked page, they are not informed that the page is filtered, but instead merely receive a standard error message, a 404 “File Not Found” error. However, the actual HTTP header, is not a 404, but a 403 Forbidden error generated by the filtering system SmartFilter, in conjunction with NetCache caching servers. SmartFilter can be configured with a blockpage that indicates to users that the site has been blocked and why, however, unlike other countries using this exact same filtering system, Tunisia has copied the text from the Internet Explorer 404 page, and used this as a blockpage to make the filtering appear to be an error.

Because Tunisia uses a commercial filtering product that contains lists categorized by SmartFilter – and unknown to the Tunisian authorities, sites are blocked that Tunisia never intended to block. These sites include, the Web site of the UK-based Lesbian & Gay Foundation and, the Web site of Olympic French skier Richard Gay, apparently mistakenly blocked because of his name.

In sum, Tunisia is using American software to censor Internet content in a non-transparent and unaccountable way. In addition to pornography and anonymizers Tunisia actively blocks access to sites that are critical of the government. In fact, the site of the Citizen's Summit, which was accessible just several days ago, has now been blocked. Furthermore, Internet access here at WSIS, in the ICT4Development area is in fact filtered, while the connection just across the hall on the official UN side is unfiltered. In the opening address of WSIS, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan stressed the importance of freedom and openness to the information society and reaffirmed the right to receive and impart information through any media regardless of frontiers.

The case of Tunisia highlights the growing contradiction between the principles of free expression expressed by policymakers and and the reality of censorship and practices worldwide.

(Cross-posted from ICE)