From 17 to 18 June 2013 I took part in the conference on online freedom known as Freedom Online. This conference, carrying the same name of the coalition behind it, highlighted the continent in which it was hosted. In the midst of the international storm about surveillance and censorship, our specific focus was online freedom in Africa and the Arab world as Tunisia, like all of the Maghreb, has one foot in both worlds.
During this conference, the representative of the US NSA/Prism programme received tonnes of questions about its operating methods. Although tainted by the recent wiretapping affair both in the USA and internationally, the bureaucrat tried politely, but I imagine stoically, to keep calm in front of pirate party members, hackers and sympathisers of Wikileaks and other cyber-revolutions. I asked myself what made Tunisia, one of the countries in the coalition, the third African and first Arab country to have joined.
Loyal to my tradition of social reporting (I send real-time tweets and Facebook messages to ensure inclusion of my compatriots and colleagues in the meetings I am attending), I wrote on Twitter: “in a country where you are arrested for singing and beaten for wearing a miniskirt, can you really talk about online freedom?”
I was of course referring to the singer Weld El 15, imprisoned for seven years for exercising his right to artistic creation by calling the Tunisian police “dogs fit for slaughter” in a song that became very popular in Tunis as well as those girls who are regularly followed in the streets by Salafist militants for not being decently dressed.
I am not talking about the women who, for political reasons, took off their shirts to show their support for a young militant colleague prosecuted and imprisoned for writing on a cemetery wall or bloggers, one of whom was forced into self-exile or even the journalist Hind Meddeb, found guilty for expressing his indignation after sentencing of the rapper.
As a woman sitting next to me said later in the same conference: “if I took off my top here, the whole world would be outraged. They (the women) should have been arrested.” However, when one lifts one’s shirt in an online public area such as Facebook or Twitter, it may be a way of expressing oneself in the face of oppression from a society that forbids opposition.
I was also invited to talk about access and inclusion of women on the internet. I can tell you that out of the twelve workshops organised during those two days in Tunis, ours was the smallest. Many participants did not feel the need to attend but the discussions were very interesting: the paradox of girls in Saudi Arabia who may not drive but own the latest smartphones and can therefore can write whatever they want online, thus recreating a world for themselves in a “men’s” universe, the Kenyan women who makes use of a fast, fibre-optic connection to develop internet services and the Congolese girls who pluck up enough courage to start exercising their rights to speak out on social networks and denounce the sexual violence of which they have been victims.
Despite this broader inclusion, differences do exist. Woman and girls still have less presence online. Issues that need to be considered include socialisation, which makes women believe that public spaces such as Facebook are not suitable for them, household tasks that forbid them the luxury of chatting online with their friends, or the fact that they must find money to go to an internet café when the equipment is not available at home.
However, women’s issues should not be confined to a single workshop as they are cross-cutting themes. Human rights issues, brought into play for security reasons, also concern me. While I take all physical measures to ensure that in the event of attacks on my office the identity of battered woman, helped by my organisation through an information service using mobile technology, will not be discovered, I would like to be sure that by using Dropbox or a Google service, this information will not simply be handed over to the government in accordance with the principle that Google respects the laws of the country in which it operates.
When the Democratic Republic of Congo decided in 2011 to block all SMSs for one month in order to curb post-electoral violence, they should have known that they were not blocking a service, but violating everyone’s right to information and the freedom of expression of those legitimately opposed to the sitting government.
An Algerian cyberactivist, fighting for democracy in her country although she studied in the United States, expressed this effectively. Looking straight at the NSA representative she asked whether, because the random criteria of this administration labels her as a person requiring international monitoring, she could be shot dead just because her geographic position was communicated to a drone.
During these two meeting days, I believe the greatest success I could record would be the fact that companies such as Google, Facebook and representatives of governments and institutions regulating the internet discovered that there are human lives attached to their decisions more than political issues, and that activists from all sides will continue to remind them of their presence and the fact that they do not want their beliefs to be dependent on the opinions of a civil servant in an air-conditioned office.