The Tunisian Internet Agency has just opened access to the basement of a villa in Tunis where government employees censored the Internet under former dictator Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali’s regime. The infamous servers used to monitor Internet usage are still there — but now, in a role reversal, Tunisian hackers have taken them over and are trying to discover their secrets.
The agency opened up its doors to hackers on June 15. They will now be able to use the venue as a lab to organise workshops and develop projects on Internet governance for Tunisia. The venue has been renamed 404 Lab, a reference to Ammar 404, the expression used by Tunisians under the Ben Ali regime to refer to Internet censorship.
Since the lab opened, a team of young programmers has been meeting there every day in order to crack the machines, which have not been used since Ben Ali’s fall.
The 404 Lab was launched the day before the agency’s third conference on Internet freedom, which took place last week and largely focused on online transparency and protection of personal data.
“We won’t turn back when it comes to Internet freedom in Tunisia”
Hackers in Tunisia are not taken seriously, even though they played a crucial role during the revolution. We entrusted them with these infamous machines so that they could decrypt them. They are working day in and day out to try to extract information from them. These machines were mainly used to block access to websites and IP addresses [a computer’s address on the Internet].
The equipment used between 2007 and 2010 was much more sophisticated, but we have not been able to give the hackers access to it because we still have a contract with the company that furnished this equipment to the Tunisian government. [Editor’s Note: Moez said he could not reveal the name of the company]. It uses a technology called DPI (Deep Packet Inspection) that was very cutting-edge when it was implemented, to the point that it had not yet been approved by international organisations. Ben Ali had committed a lot of resources to censoring the Internet during the last years of his reign. In 2010 alone, he spent 2 million euros to monitor Internet use in Tunisia.
We care deeply about freedom of expression and having a free and open Internet. For this reason, after Ben Ali’s fall, we became the first country in Africa to install TOR servers, special servers that allow people to get around censorship. So, today, people who live in countries that do censor can use our servers to freely access the Internet. We were also the first African country to join the Freedom Online Coalition, through which countries commit to having a completely free and open Internet. This was an part of our revolution and, on this point, we won’t be turning back.