The Impact of Censorship and Surveillance on the Economy in Tunisia

The control over the Internet has gradually tightened in Tunisia after the recent terrorist strikes.  Accordingly, the government found a loophole to pass the anti-terrorism law which contradicts the newly drafted constitution (Article 19, 32) in an obvious way.   
 
The Internet in Tunisia is used primarily as “an entertainment” tool by the public. However, with the growing number of Internet end users, foreign and local investors started to utilize the Internet as a means of production. In other words, the Internet is used not only for communication and information dissemination on social media but also for e-business and e-commerce.  


 
Internet openness requires vigilance as well as transparent and proactive governance policies that promote universal and affordable access and that reduce risks and operating costs for Internet businesses to attract investments and promote ongoing innovation. However, Internet openness is not merely the absence of censorship, but rather an ideal state in which freedom, interoperability, transparency, policy, security and privacy are in a binding relationship. As a result, this Internet openness interferes directly with the Internet Economy, therefore governmental restrictions on openness increase the risks and costs of doing business. An open Internet includes four core attributes: freedom, interoperability and equity, transparency, security and privacy.
 
 
Do restrictions on Internet Openness Inhibit Economic Growth? If So, How ?
 
In order to answer the interconnectedness between Internet openness and economic growth, we must conduct a quantitative research to examine the relationship between Internet openness and economic factors such as Internet contribution to GDP, maturity of the economy, e-commerce activity and innovation indexes. In order to dig even deeper into the complex layers of Internet openness, we must first understand the direct and indirect restrictions over the Internet.
 

 
Those restrictions create deadweight costs for online-enabled businesses which have to invest in hardware and software to comply with restrictive laws, assign personnel to monitor content and engage lawyers to fight costly battles. In other words, all of these expenses would otherwise be used to grow the business and create value to the customer. It will also decrease the availability of the information. Blocking access to certain websites can deny end-users valuable information which will affect economic innovation and productivity.
 
Impact on Investments : Online censorship and surveillance made Tunisia less appealing to foreign investors. The restrictions set by the government will act as a proxy for the risk-operating including network shutdowns, surveillance and censorship.
 
Online restrictions in Tunisia have reduced investors’ confidence in the regulatory environment which created uncertainty and increased perceived risks, thus rendering the country less attractive to investors. Digital economy and technology products have a substantial share of the GDP in most technologically advanced countries, which is not the case for Tunisia. Besides, network technologies have contributed to the production of other innovations in different fields, such as education and medicine.  
 
It is worth noting that the extent of business Internet use in a technologically advanced country like the United States was nearly six times higher than the rates in most developing nations in 2006.

  
 
Impact On ICTs: A strong Internet economy requires a healthy and dynamic ICT sector that can enable a country’s transformation into a digital society. State-sponsored surveillance and censorship trigger both operational and moral challenges for ICT companies and thus may bear negatively on shareholder returns. The latter’s participation in government surveillance and censorship efforts, whether willingly or as an implicit condition of doing business, creates a sense of distrust and insecurity for retail consumers and institutional customers alike.
 
These companies possess and facilitate the transfer of individuals’ and institutions’ most sensitive information: from day-to-day personal details shared among friends to classified data shared between military units which also includes banking accounts and sensitive business materials.  
 
At the retail level, where a consumer doubts that their wireless provider is failing to protect their privacy, they will not trust in the wireless provider and may decide to change the wireless carriers. On a wider scale, this distrust may erode a company’s brand value, threatening the company’s competitiveness and productivity as it attempts to maintain access to market share and other business opportunities.


 
How to Overcome the Impact of Censorship and Surveillance on the Internet Economy?
 
Removing online censorship policies and limit liability costs, promoting the global interoperability and equity of the internet and ensuring universal as well as affordable access:  these policies are planned to be achieved gradually within the Smart Tunisia project Framework which will officially start on November 26th, 2015
 
Smart Tunisia aims to make Tunisia a competitive destination in communication technology and digital economy. So far, 12 agreements were signed with foreign and Tunisian investors to create 3,100 direct jobs in the coming months and enhance Internet economy measurements, infrastructure and application.  
 
 
Author : Marwa Jabrane, Administrative Coordinator at Sfax Capital Of Arab Culture 2016