By APCNews Beirut, 15 January 2016
“Security should be framed as trust. People need to know that their rights are protected online.” This was Tunisian engineer Moez Chakchouk’s powerful message at the Arab Internet Governance Forum (IGF) 2015 opening session, in December.
It was a strong assessment in a forum dominated by financial and security concerns, and focusing on increasing terror threats and the need for even more mass surveillance in the Middle East and North Africa.
Chakchouk, a leading human rights defender and internet governance figure in the region, is credited with having pushed for the inclusion of civil society in the governance of the Tunisian internet, after decades of monopoly by the government. Shortly after the Tunisian revolution, he was appointed CEO of the Tunisian Internet Agency, where he founded a Tunisian internet exchange point and encouraged an open and transparent dialogue on internet governance in the country. Today he is the chairman and CEO of Tunisian Post.
APC’s Leila Nachawati met Chakchouk in Beirut during the the Arab IGF, held on 17-18 December. It was a sort of reunion, the meeting taking place four years after the 3rd Arab Bloggers Meeting held in Tunis in October 2011, in which they both participated.
APCNews: In your interventions, you were quite critical of the statements raised by some of the stakeholders. Now that the Arab IGF is over, what is your assessment of the conference?
Moez Chakchouk: The main focus of the conference has been on cybesecurity. Governments are afraid of people, and this is why they often confuse hacking with threat. Rulers have something to hide, and this leads them to view hacking as a crime. In my panel, national security was linked to the government, the leaders, and this is what fomer Tunisian president Ben Ali used to do too. Back then, in a repressive context, hacking was a key way for people to express their identities – these minds are the future of the development of the internet. Putting them in jail forces them to become terrorists, instead of integrating them in the future of the country.
Daesh (the so-called Islamic State) was recurrently mentioned as the reason for cybercrime laws, censorship, surveillance… but none of these measures will stop Daesh, and these laws will have a chilling effect on people’s rights. Daesh should not change our way of living; we should make a point of this.
APCNews: What are your recommendations for next year, in terms of internet governance in the region?
MC: There should be a strong focus on development, rather than on cybersecurity only. Someone at my panel said, “We need security before we can develop the internet,” but it is precisely the opposite. We need more and more development, more and more innovation, as a response to all the threats and challenges in the region. We should not condition innovation and development on security. Development and innovation are what brings security, understood in the broader sense.
Also, in a space like this there should be room for discussing open source alternatives. Stakeholders talk sovereignty and forget that there is no such thing in terms of the internet today.
People need to feel safe, trust the governments, companies. There are misunderstandings in this field: who are the enemies, what are we fighting against, what are the real threats? Let’s have a real conversation around this, really incorporating all stakeholders.
Let’s talk education. I am involved in educating the Tunisian public in the use of online tools for saving money, using their cards, protecting their identities, being safe online… We can do it; it is all about education, which Arab states don’t always care about. It is a matter of culture, educating the younger and also the older generations. Part of this is convincing users to be responsible for their security, raising awareness of what using Microsoft and other privately owned tools involve. This is a long-term goal.
APCNews: There was a big delegation of Tunisians attending the conference this year. Is this symbolic?
MC: Yes, it is something to be proud of. Tunisia went through a process of completely opening the internet. Most stakeholders come from civil society, since our private sector is not aware of the importance of the IGF and these debates. Corporations mostly rely on government decisions.
Civil society, on the other hand, is very involved in internet governance, as a result of a post-revolution feeling of empowerment and freedom of expression. Taboos have been broken and people are open. This is an achievement and it can be seen in the drafting of the constitution, political dialogue… People in my country are more educated than others regarding the threats, the challenges, what is at stake. They are aware that censorship is not the solution to the problems we face.
APCNews: Tunisia has become such a model that it was awarded this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.
MC: Yes! I was at an event when the prize was announced and we heard that the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet had won the award. We stopped what we were doing and started singing the national anthem, it was so exciting. And now we have our own postage stamp celebrating the Nobel Peace Prize.
APCNews: A few days ago we interviewed Iranian blogger Hossein Derakhsan who shared quite a pessimistic view on the “free open web” he was imprisoned for. What is your view?
MC: The bloggers who made the revolution (not me, I was in my office) played an amazing role back in 2011. It was such an amazing, vibrant time. I remember attending the 3rd Arab Bloggers Meeting in Tunisia, learning so much from those young activists. That meeting really changed my life.
The blogger scene was so powerful. In Tunisia, open source analyst Slim Amamou impressed me so much with his work, his contributions. It is after talking to him that I created my Twitter account. These young activists helped empower people, the way they engaged with the revolution, the way they shared with others. They were the face of the free open web.
Back then, the enemy was Ben Ali, whereas now the enemy is not so clear, not so visible, there are so many stakeholders. Who is the threat? Google? The government? The NSA? There is no clear target anymore. Bloggers’ legitimacy to claim rights was replaced with “you need to be surveilled if you want to be secure”.
I am still optimistic. People are increasingly aware of the fact that companies and governments focus on their own interests only. Technologies keep evolving and we will find ways. When the web was censored, we had proxies. It is a matter of technology continuing to evolve. We need to make sure people stay involved in the internet ecosystem, and that the technical community keeps developing new technologies to ensure an open internet, used freely. We will keep finding ways.