January 8, 2011 / 7:33 AM / in 7 years

US worried by Tunisia riots, Internet freedoms

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States called in Tunisia’s ambassador in Washington because of its handling of anti-government riots and possible interference with the Internet, including Facebook accounts, a senior U.S. official said on Friday.

<p>U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton makes remarks after receiving the 2009 Alice Award at Sewall-Belmont House and Museum in Washington June 8, 2009. REUTERS/Jim Young</p>

Speaking a day before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton heads to the Gulf to discuss expanding civil society freedoms across the Arab world, a U.S. State Department official said the department was concerned about rising unrest in Tunisia and Algeria, both of which have seen rioting in recent weeks.

“We’re certainly watching what’s happening in both Tunisia and Algeria with a great deal of interest,” a senior State Department official said.

Clashes broke out last month in Tunisia as students, professionals and youths protested a shortage of jobs and restrictions on public freedoms. Neighboring Algeria has beefed up security as protests broke out over food prices and unemployment.

The State Department official, who was speaking on condition of anonymity, said Tunisia’s ambassador was called in on Thursday to receive a formal expression of concern.

“(We) expressed our concern about both what is happening with regard to the demonstrations and expressed and encouraged the Tunisian government to ensure that civil liberties are respected, including the freedom to peacefully assemble,” the official said.

The protests have grown into the most widespread and violent flare-up of dissent during President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s 23-year rule. They have included street demonstrations and a strike by lawyers to demand an end to what they said were beatings by security forces.

“QUITE CONCERNED”

“We also raised the issue of what looks like Tunisian government interference with the Internet, most notably Facebook,” the State Department official said. “Frankly speaking, we’re quite concerned about this and we’re looking at the best and most effective way to respond and to get the result we want.”

Another U.S. official, also speaking on background, said both the government and activists appeared to be targeting the Internet.

“We’ve received some information from Facebook that helped us understand what was happening. This is a case of hacking into private accounts, stealing passwords and being able effectively to curb individuals’ access to social media,” the official said.

“In a variety of ways there’s activities on a number of sides, but clearly the government has taken some specific actions that are of concern to us.”

Facebook said it was aware of the reports.

“We believe that people should have safe and secure communications and we are exploring ways to ensure that they do,” the company said in a statement without elaborating.

Clinton has repeatedly criticized countries including Iran and China for censoring the Internet and efforts to block social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, which the United States says can help civil groups to organize.

Both resource-rich Algeria and Tunisia have joined the West in efforts to fight militant Islamic fundamentalists, seen as a rising threat in the Arab states of north Africa as well as the broader Middle East region.

Clinton will depart on Saturday for a trip to the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Qatar, where she will discuss key security concerns such as Iran’s nuclear program as well as push autocratic governments to engage more with civil society.

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