Overview: Internet Filtering 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) (http://www.ltdh.org/), the unauthorized Congrés Pour la République (CPR) political party (http://www.cprtunisie.com/) as well as news and media sites such as http://www.tunisnews.net
and http://www.tunezine.com which provide news and commentary that is critical of the government. Tunisia also blocks international human rights organizations such as http://www.rsf.org, 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 http://www.lgf.org.uk, the Web site of the UK-based Lesbian & Gay Foundation and http://www.richard-gay.com, 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.


  1. […] The Open Net Initiative ’s Technical Director Nart Villeneuve also gave an excellent presentation on how governments are filtering and censoring the internet worldwide. Nart is one of the authors of a new report on how Tunisia censors the internet – with the help of a U.S. software company. Here is his blog post about the issue. Tomorrow Ethan will lead a hands-on workshop to teach people how to circumvent this kind of censorship, and also how to blog anonymously. […]

  2. Ahh, looks like Thailand will be doing more or less the same as Tunisia soon. They just announced they’ll be blocking 800,000 websites from next year – they kind of made it sound like it was going to be mainly porn, but it will be interesting to see a few of the other sites they block (maybe the insurgents in the south of the country shouldn’t get used to the access level they currently have).

  3. […] (Cross-posted from ICE) […]

  4. Hello,

    I am a Tunisian citizen and I can confirm what was published in the report. What I find outrageous is that the government treats the citizens like idots, I find it unhonest to block sites and _lie_ about it making it appear as an HTTP error. I have a screen shot of Konqueror (another browser), running on Linux in English displaying the error message of Internet Explorer running on Windows in French! At least the Saudis are open about their policy and would return a clear message stating that the site is blocked and why, they even allow users to submit a form to challenge the decision of bloackge.

    What is less know in Tunisia is e-mail filtering: all Internet traffic in Tunisia flows through one single government-controlled body (Agence Tunisienne d’Internet, ATI, http://www.ati.tn/). ATI are blocking all inbound and outbound e-mail traffic (to TCP port 25) making it impossible to a machine in Tunisia to directly connect to a foreign mail server and vice-versa: a machine cannot connect to any non-ATI mail servers in Tunisia. This can be easily implemented using firewall and DNS settings.

    It’s a common knowledge now that ATI are filtering e-mail and scanning for any undesired communications.

    Of course the government will answer that it needs to block some “irresponsible” sites, but so far they have _only_ attacked and jailed Internet users for writing political articles and expressing their opinions. There was no single instance of someone being harrassed for accessing pornography, spamming or any other Internet crimes. There was even a time when pornography was not blocked at all!

  5. دكتور ارجو مساعدتى في معلومات عن دي ان اس وماهي اخر نسخ تكتب بها

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