The Duck of Minerva

Anonymous attacks Tunisian Government Websites

10 January 2011

The Christian Science Monitor is reporting that the hackitivist collective [?] “Anonymous,” famous for DDOS attacks on Mastercard and Paypal after the Wikileaks Cablegate fiasco, is attacking the government of Tunisia’s website in support of the growing and increasingly violent protests there:

“But the unrest has since spread to a wide cross-section of Tunisian society, reflecting broader discontent with inequality and autocratic leaders perceived as corrupt figures who live high on the hog while blocking free expression by average Tunisians (see map showing protest locations). The pro-Wikileaks hacker group “Anonymous” has even joined the fray, launching cyber attacks on the Tunisian government.”

It is difficult to judge the impact of Anonymous so far, but it is at least an interesting show of solidarity. Although the proximate cause of the rioting is the self-immolation of a university graduate who was arrested for selling fruits and vegetables without a license, the Wikileaks documents are apparently fueling the protests (again from the Christian Science Monitor article):

“US State Department cables published by Wikileaks last month may have thrown fuel on the fire, by showing that US diplomats privately hold similar opinions of Tunisia’s leadership as many Tunisians.” 

The government crackdown includes attempts to censor social media websites which are being used to organize the protests as well as arrests of three members of the Tunisian branch of the Pirate Party:

 “A Le Monde interview with a member of the “Tunisian Pirate Party” referred to as “Sofiene” revealed a cat-and-mouse game between government censors and Internet freedom fighters and their foreign allies. Protesters are using Facebook mirror sites, proxy servers, and other means to outwit censors and get out their message, reported the French daily, an excerpt of which the Monitor translated for our non-francophone readers:

State censorship will increase, but counter-censorship is now strong. Tunisians are more and more informed, and demand information. Censorship only works if people self-censor and are afraid, or aren’t interested in the news.”

While the underlying cause of these protests remains economic (high unemployment, high food prices, and increasing integration with the sluggish European economy), the organizational form seems to be increasingly reliant on new social network technology (although at this point the protests could easily spread through other means if Internet based social networking sites were all blocked). Of course, this does not mean that the government will be toppled by the twitterati or that techno-democratization will occur in Tunisia. Having taught in a university in the Middle East when only one fax machine was allowed for the entire campus, I know that authoritarian states have a way of bringing threatening communications technologies under control and even using those technologies to facilitate surveillance and repression.

But what we are seeing is that outside actors are increasingly willing to try to help counterstrike when authoritarian states crackdown on Internet based networking technologies. In addition, Twitter, Facebook, Google, and the US government are not the only players in the game. Non-corporate/non-state networks like “Anonymous” may also become relevant actors willing to “backstop” social networking technologies (through mirror sites) and challenge the ability of repressive states to use the Internet in future dramas of global politics.