Wikileaks: Microsoft aided former Tunisian regime

Diplomatic cables published via Wikileaks show that Microsoft agreed to train Tunisian law enforcement officers in IT as a way to convince the government to drop an open-source mandate
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

Microsoft provided IT training to law enforcement officials in Tunisia while the country was governed by a repressive regime, embassy cables published by Wikileaks show.

Tunisian street and flag

Cables leaked by Wikileaks show that Microsoft provided IT training to law enforcement officials in Tunisia, before the country threw off its repressive regime in 2011. Photo credit: Nasser Nouri on Flickr

According to a cable sent by the US embassy in Tunis on 22 September, 2006, Microsoft was so keen to get the Tunisian government to drop its policy favouring open-source software that it agreed to set up a "program on cyber criminality" to cover training. The deal also entailed the company giving the Tunisian regime, headed by President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, the original source code for Microsoft software.

The cable was made public last week by Wikileaks as part of a massive and largely accidental publication of unredacted US embassy messages. In it, embassy officials told Washington there was a risk the training could be used to further oppress the Tunisian people.

"Through a program on cyber criminality, Microsoft will train government officials in the Ministries of Justice and Interior on how to use computers and the internet to fight crime. As part of this program, Microsoft will provide the GOT [Government of Tunisia] with original source codes for its program," the cable read.

"In theory, increasing GOT law enforcement capability through IT training is positive, but given heavy-handed GOT interference in the internet, Post questions whether this will expand GOT capacity to monitor its own citizens," it continued.

The cable ended with the observation that "ultimately, for Microsoft the benefits outweigh the costs".

Tunisia 'not free'

Freedom House's assessment of Tunisia in 2010 rated the country as 'not free'. It noted that Ben Ali "tightly controlled" elections and that the government harassed and imprisoned bloggers, journalists and political opponents. At the start of 2011, Ben Ali's regime was overthrown, kicking off the so-called Arab Spring.

The partnership agreement between Tunisia and Microsoft was signed at a forum in South Africa in July 2006. At first, neither party would give the embassy any information about the terms of the deal. In September, however, Microsoft Tunisia's director general Salwa Smaoui gave an overview to the US consulate's Economics Office (abbreviated in the cable as 'EconOff').

In addition to giving the Tunisian government access to its source code — most likely to allay fears about the company's "American-ness", according to Smaoui — Microsoft agreed to establish an 'Innovation Centre' in Tunisia for "developing local software production capacity". The cable notes that this would address the regime's concerns over local employment.

The company appears to have agreed to train handicapped Tunisians in IT. Smaoui suggested this was probably in view of the fact that the Tunisian leader's wife, Leila Ben Ali, ran a charity for handicapped Tunisians.

Microsoft also offered to help the government "upgrade and modernise its computers and networking capabilities", according to the embassy.

Ultimately, for Microsoft the benefits outweigh the costs.
– US embassy cable

"In turn, the GOT agreed to purchase 12,000 licences to update government computers with official Microsoft software, rather than the pirated versions that have been commonly used, according to one Microsoft employee. Since 2001, the GOT adopted an open software policy, using only free software programs.

"Additionally, future GOT tenders for IT equipment will specify that the equipment must be Microsoft-compatible, which is currently prohibited by the Tunisian open software policy," the cable added.

In early 2010, the US warned that state censorship of the internet was increasing in Tunisia. When the revolution came a year later, the government briefly tried to suppress online information about the dissent that would topple it within days.

Open-source opposition

The Tunisian cable is just one of several that appeared last week, providing details of Microsoft's efforts against open-source rivals. For example, a cable sent in February 2010 described how Microsoft and the Business Software Alliance (BSA) met with Thai officials to argue that their government was wrong to promote open-source software as a way to fight piracy.

Another cable, sent from the Caracas embassy on 16 June, 2006, outlined Microsoft's opposition to a draft Venezuelan law that mandated open-source software for governmental use. It revealed that a Microsoft general manager had shown US EconOff officials an internal memo from Venezuela's state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA).

According to the cable, the memo "claimed that all US software companies had a 'back door' mechanism whereby the US government could at any time access information, citing the supposed Calea Law (United States Law of Assistance in Communications for Security Systems)".

"The memo made a claim that the [US government] simultaneously shut down all Microsoft operating systems in Iraq before attacking, and then detailed various NSA and CIA hacker programs. The memo concludes that [Venezuela] should not contract any services from American providers," the cable continued.

In response to the cable revelations, Microsoft noted it has a number of programs worldwide where it works in partnership with governments.

"Microsoft partners with countries around the world to help spur local IT innovation and job creation, help broaden access to IT, and to enable governments to adopt IT in the delivery of services to citizens," the company said in a statement to ZDNet UK. "This has been the focus of our work in Tunisia. Any training was provided as part of the standard global programs — including the Security Cooperation Program — that we have in place."

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