Tunisian Telcos’ plan to take the internet hostage


There are rumors circulating that Tunisia’s three telecommunications operators, Tunisie Telecom, Orange, and Ooredoo, might enter into an agreement limiting customers’ access to voice over IP (VoIP) services. If implemented, this agreement would dramatically impact users’ freedom of expression online.

If you can’t beat it, block it

The information revealed on September 13, by the French international news television channel, France 24 shows that users in Tunisia will have to subscribe to postpaid or professional mobile contracts in order to access services such as Skype or Viber over 3G mobile connections which were previously available with any mobile subscription.

This decision was taken following an alleged decline in revenues due, the operators argue, to the massive use by their clients of VoIP services allowing free international calls. While the press claimed that the National Telecommunications Authority (better known by its French acronym, INT) support the telcos’ agreement, the Authority recently issued a statement declaring that it had not received any formal request from the operators to implement such change and will make sure that telcos respect their obligation towards net neutrality.

The telcos are arguing that this agreement will not lead to any blocking of applications, since VoIP services will still be available through specific mobile subscriptions. However, the large majority of users in Tunisia relying on prepaid subscriptions will no longer be able to access these services. Indeed, studies from 2013 shows that 95% of Tunisians’ mobile users’ have a prepaid subscription with their telecoms operators.

Internet gatekeepers

Shortly after this agreement was publicly revealed, the Tunisian organisation for consumer protection (ODC, for its acronym in French) announced that it will initiate legal proceedings against this anti-competitive measure. The Minister for Technologies has also published a statement to remind telcos of decree 3026 according to which “telecom operators are under a legal obligation to ensure the continuity of services in the best conditions without any intervention on the type of content or applications running on their networks.”

While Orange and Ooredoo have been vehemently criticised in the past for effectively blocking skype on mobile connections (here and here), these companies are now moving toward implementing yet another agreement that would dramatically hinder freedom of expression and people’s ability to communicate. By actively preventing access to specific content and application through commercial discrimination, telcos effectively become gatekeepers of the internet. In addition, such an environment would greatly harm innovation by reducing the incentive and possibility for new innovative players to enter the market.

Next steps

It is rumored, this agreement might be implemented by October in Tunisia. This proposal echoes several proposals developed by telcos around the worlds to limit their economic loss. While Europe is witnessing the blooming of specialised services, in the USA, the Federal Communications Commission is looking into a proposal that would open the door to a pay-to-play internet. These proposals raised citizens and civil society concerns around the world, leading to numerous protests and campaigns (see here, here and here) to prevent the establishment of new online discrimination measures.

The appearance of these discriminatory proposals highlights the need to ensure a neutral internet free from discrimination globally. Learn more about the global fight for net neutrality here.