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The autistic fire-starter – the Tunisian Facebook revolution

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24 January 2011

Zuckerberg Tunisia
As has become habitual after social upheaval, the digerati again engaged in some serious navelgazing after the Tunisian uprising. To what extent was it a Twitter, or even a Wikileaks revolution, we asked?

It turns out it was a Facebook revolution. More than any other platform, Facebook was used and used widely by ordinary Tunisians (detailed info on my other blog).

Good on you, Mr. Zuckerburg! says Roger Cohen in the New York Times.

When Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the now ousted dictator, addressed the nation, as he would three times, Facebook-ferried fury was the response. Ben Ali might have 1.5 million members in his puppet party; he soon faced two million Facebook users.

And so on chimes the Atlantic enthusing:

It was on Christmas Day that Facebook’s Chief Security Officer Joe Sullivan first noticed strange things going on in Tunisia. Reports started to trickle in that political protest pages were being hacked. “We were getting anecdotal reports saying: ‘It looks like someone logged into my account and deleted it’ “, Sullivan said.

Sullivan’s team rapidly coded a two-step response to the problem. First, all Tunisian requests for Facebook were routed to an https server. The Https protocol encrypts the information you send across it, so it’s not susceptible to the keylogging strategy employed by the Tunisian ISPs.

The second technical solution they implemented was a “roadblock” for anyone who had logged out and then back in during the time when the malicious code was running…

They rolled out the new solutions to 100% of Tunisia by Monday morning, five days after they’d realized what was happening.

So Facebook reacted in no time by introducing HTTPS and helped save the day. Hoorah!

Not so fast.

In truth it would seem that Facebook did not care for months that part of its sprawling empire was catching fire, and a country with it.

Facebook disable Tunisia

Fabrice's disabled account

Fabrice Epelboin, a hactivist, entrepeneur and founder of Read Write Web France (RWW) has called the Facebook reaction autistic and recent reports of Facebook’s caring PR bullshit.

Let’s backtrack to 2008 …

The atmosphere in Tunisia was tense before the upcoming elections. YouTube and many other websites and blogs were already blocked. Then, on the morning of 18 August 2008, people logged in to Facebook just to find their access denied. There was insurrectionary talk in the air:

that’s one more step of killing internet freedom as same as many other freedoms and this will contiue if no reacts against this tirany. All computer geeks should cooperate to put and end to this opression. If no one reacts it won’t stop and internet will be useless in tunisia.

A few weeks later, after a massive public outcry and personal intervention of the president, the ban on Facebook was lifted.

The Tunisian authorities wanted to get at Facebook by other means. The next phase in the communications war had started. The attempt to inject code into Facebook pages to capture the login details of Facebook users is well known by now. See a technical discussion here.

But that started long before this festive season. Fabrice Epelboin again:

Fabrice's hacked profile

Fabrice's hacked profile - made to look like an attack by Islamists

Well… When we first encountered aggressive ‘islamic e-terrorist’ on Facebook, in may 2010, I had an ‘eFatwa’ on my head/profile (see story here). I immediately alerted Facebook, they didn’t respond, dispute[sic] me having a good working relationship with their Paris PR agency. Then we published the story on RWW US, and they asked to have their take published, saying profile deactivation was made by humans, not automatically, and therefore couldn’t be tricked.

The next day, my profile got deactivated, I made a huge post on the french edition exposing everything we had discovered.

During this episode, Marshall, the editor of RWW in the US and me where in heavy talks with Facebook VP for privacy, as this could become a major PR storm (unfortunately, it did not, but this is certainly not RWW’s fault).

At the time RWW made the explicit point that ordinary Tunisians’ accounts were being disabled. Lists of artists and activists accounts were sent to Facebook. Unlike RWW editors their accounts were not switched back on.

It would seem that the Tunisian cyber police used a technique where they deliberately triggered warning flags on user profiles. Possibly after hacking them. After a couple of times an automatic Facebook script deleted these accounts.

But even after the RWW articles, Facebook claimed this was not the case, that it was simply a Facebook employee error.

Alerté depuis maintenant près d’un mois, Facebook a continuellement eu le même discours : les désactivations de comptes seraient systématiquement réalisés après une enquête faite par un employé de Facebook.

Alerted for almost a month, Facebook has continually had the same speech: the deactivation of accounts would be systematically carried out after an investigation by an employee of Facebook. Not very credible, but difficult to argue otherwise … until my account referenced in several of these lists has been disabled in turn. (Google Translate)

Netocratie oblige, et contrairement à des centaines de Tunisiens qui n’ont jamais pu récupérer leurs comptes, le mien a été réactivé en cinq minutes, suivi des excuses du directeur de la vie privée de Facebook, accompagnées de la même justification et invoquant l’erreur d’un employé. (Google Translate)

…mine was reactivated in five minutes, followed by an apology from the director of the privacy of Facebook, along with the same justification and invoking the an employee error.

That was 9 months ago. And in June 2010 Slim Amanou (now the youth minister in Tunis) published an article showing the sophisticated hacking techniques used on Facebook by the Tunisian authorities.

Fabrice again:

…we undercovered publicly the massive terrorist scheme operated by the Ben Ali regime (article here)…

During all this time Fabrice claims Facebook was not helpful at all -

During all 2010, we’ve been regularly updating Facebook about every detail, and we’ve been providing them with list of deactivated accounts who where hold by Tunisians we where in contact with. They never ever provided any feedback, but it looks like they did something because, on the field, profile deactivation appeared to be less frequent.

The only time when they gave me a feedback was during the last week of the revolution, when ByLasko, one of RWW authors in Tunisia, had his FB account hacked and couldn’t access it. I send an emergy signal to Facebook PR in France and got a simple quote back : “we are aware of the situation and are investigating”.

Now compare this with Google. Fabrice is our man again:

When Kasserine killings occurred, we made a big PR buzz about Tunisia by uploading a very graphic scene on YouTube and having it expectedly censored, and reporting about it. French and specialised press wasn’t very eager to talk about Tunisia, but they all were willing to trash Google, so it worked pretty well. The video was simply violating Google terms on graphic content. It took Google 12 hours to change its moderation rules to accept everything coming from Tunisia. They even gave us instruction for better cooperation with their moderation services and tips for better SEO.

Tunisia was a revolution in which Facebook played a huge role. The Atlantic again:

Back in July, bloggers Photoshopped a picture of Mark Zuckerberg to show him holding up a sign that read, “Sayeb Sala7, ya 3ammar,” the slogan for a freedom of expression campaign late in 2010. Later, Zuckerberg popped up on a sign outside the Saudi Arabian embassy carried by Tunisian protesters demanding the arrest of Ben Ali.

But this loftly role was because Tunisians were using Facebook even in the face of grave risks. Mark himself wasn’t really paying attention.

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1 Comment

  • Posted by theo
    January 26, 2011 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    good insight, thanks !

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