This website is an archive of the work of Marietje Schaake in the European Parliament between 2009 and 2019. Marietje can be reached at

Media: #Tunisia: Why Europe should lead the protection of internet freedom #sidibouzid

By Marietje Schaake, 6.1.2011, While Europe celebrated Christmas and the New Year, an uprising began in Tunisia after a young man set himself on fire. The young generation who has lived under repression all their lifetime now calls for more freedoms and more jobs. Thousands of youngsters are estimated to have participated in the protests during the last weeks. In the following fights with riot police at least two demonstrators were killed. A global network of concerned eyewitnesses is following the issues on the internet, while the Western media by and large have failed to report on the citizen movement in Tunisia. The situation in Tunisia is unique in the Middle-East, and perhaps an indicator of more confrontations between youthful generations and governments who are limiting freedoms. Internet plays a crucial role for both parties. Repressive regimes are becoming increasingly advanced in applying technologies to maintain power and control, and to suppress its citizens. The Tunisian government used filter software to censor information on internet and to block certain websites. Internet use from café's is being monitored and in some places people have to show their ID before getting internet access. Additionally, all information such as emails goes through centrally controlled servers. Internet and new technologies are both a stake and a means in the fight for increasing or limiting human rights. Through blogs, video sites and twitter eyewitness accounts from Tunisia are shared with the rest of the world. These stories in turn inspire others. Last Sunday Egyptians took to the streets in support of the demonstrations in Tunisia, all organised online. Internet activism manifests itself in many ways. Hackers network Anonymous recently took down a number of Tunisian government websites. Members of this international network, known for its attacks on financial institutions which broke off ties with WikiLeaks, called for attacks as an explicit revenge for the limitations to internet freedom. Upon opening the Tunisian government's websites, the logo of ´Operation Tunisia´ part of ´Operation Payback´ appeared, this operation should be considered a payback for limiting internet freedom according to a press release by Anonymous. Less destructive forms of activism is the writing of software which allows the circumvention of government filters. But the Tunisian government itself also strikes back via the internet in an attempt to silence the opposition movement. Websites such as Google,.YouTube and Facebook were taken over or taken down. At least one blogger has been arrested and many Tunisians made it known via Twitter that their Facebook and email accounts were taken over. They accuse the government of virtual attacks. Increasingly, the internet has become the battlefield where conflicts between activists and governments are being fought. The uprisings in Iran after the 2009 Presidential elections serve as an important example. The world became eyewitness of both opportunities and threats that internet brings in the field of human rights. One the one hand, clips filmed on cell phones, such as of the murder of Neda Agha Soltan, showed the world how the Iranian regime violates human rights. On the other hand the mobile phone network, provided to Iran by the European company Nokia Siemens Networks, enabled the wiretapping and tracing of dissidents. In countless other countries, we see how cyberspace turns the traditional power relations between citizen and government upside down. Many regimes respond by repression. In Egypt, Iran, China, Birma and Azerbaijan bloggers are arrested and criminalized. People in these countries (and others) are being tortured for their passwords so the governments can track and trace the dissident networks this way. Tunisia is a ´friend of the West´, it is not strategically located, and has too few resources to be of real importance on the global stage. Perhaps that explains the lack of responses to the unrest from the EU and the US thus far. Yet, we can not ignore the images of the crackdown on demonstrators. Europe should speak out against the oppression of citizens who are raising their voices, whether that happens in the streets or online. And that call should not be limited to the Middle East. Early 2010, Hillary Clinton gave a passionate speech for the US to be a world leader for internet freedom. The responses of US officials to the publications of leaked documents on WikiLeaks however, risk undermining the credibility of the US when it comes to internet freedom. The battle is not over, and so far hackers and citizen movements seem to have a reasonable chance to break open strongholds of power with the help of technology. There is a real risk however, that ever stricter rules will be drafted to regulate internet use. That would be an unwise decision. Precisely by focusing on as much openness and internet freedom as possible, we can amplify the voice of the global young generation. Internet activism in Tunisia and the American responses to the documents published by WikiLeaks underline the need for European leadership. It is high time that the EU takes responsibility and acts as a leader for defending internet freedom.