Not all governments are enthusiastic about the democratization of information that the internet brings. There are regimes worldwide that seek to control online freedom and severely clamp down on what their citizens can do on the web. Some countries have even made the use of VPN illegal.
From blocking independent media to censoring or monitoring how citizens use the internet, there’s a range of ways that governments can limit the online freedom that most of us in the West enjoy every day. It's not just far flung dictatorships that control online freedom, either – our research has found numerous popular tourist destinations where locals and visitors have their internet access monitored or tightly controlled.
We list the worst offenders of internet censorship, tell you which countries to avoid for a break if you care about online freedom, as well as look at the future of internet suppression.
- Which Countries Have the Worst Internet Censorship? – see our top 30 list
- Tourist Destinations that Limit Online Freedom – still wish you were here?
- How We Calculated our Censorship Rankings – our research explained
- The Future of Online Censorship – why the West may seek tighter controls
Which Countries Have the Worst Internet Censorship?
We’ve ranked the 30 worst countries for internet freedom, taking into account the content that citizens can access, the illegality of privacy tools such as VPNs, as well as monitoring policies and limitations on freedom of expression.
Some of the countries on the censorship index aren’t going to shock anyone. You won’t be surprised to learn that when it comes to online freedom, North Korea isn’t exactly leading the way. However, even that notorious dictatorship finds itself a close second to the country that tops our internet censorship list – Turkmenistan.
If you’re not familiar with the Turkmenistan, it’s situated between Iran, Iraq and Uzbekistan – all of which also feature in our censorship rankings. There are several reasons that Turkmenistan is at the top of the index, and none of them are good.
To begin with, there is only one internet provider, which is government-controlled. Turkmentelecom has had the monopoly since 2001, and it uses this grip to block many sites and services, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. It also monitors traffic as standard, including personal email data.
Independent media simply doesn’t exist in Turkmenistan, and should anyone speak out about its government, the consequences can be dire. Political “disappearances” are not uncommon, and the country’s jails have been criticized by the UN for practicing torture. For these reasons, citizens must self-censor their behavior online.
Though the two are nearly neck and neck in our rankings, Turkmenistan narrowly nudges ahead of even North Korea in this dubious honors list. It’s a close-run contest between the two when it comes to the worst suppression of online freedoms, and although you might suspect North Korea of topping the poll, its walled intranet means that most citizens don't even have the opportunity to access the wider web.
Not Just Dictatorships – Internet Censorship in Tourist Destinations
Sure, you might not be packing your bags for Pyongyang anytime soon. But plenty of countries on our list pitch themselves as the perfect holiday destination, attracting millions of visitors each year. Despite the allure of their landscapes, food and culture, these are also places where the wrong type of post on Facebook could land you in hot water, and where citizens are denied internet freedoms many of us take for granted.
China, a country that sees around 140 million tourists visit every year, comes third in our censorship rankings. China even goes so far as to assign its citizens scores based on its mass surveillance social credit system. Visitors to China must tread carefully over mentioning banned topics online. A famous example is the Tiananmen Square massacre. The country automatically censors the words around its anniversary, and those that speak up about it are dealt with swiftly. Migrant worker Hu Changgen was jailed for a year for publishing comments about the massacre in a WeChat group.
China is no stranger to locking up journalists. According to Reporters without Borders, it jailed 57 last year alone. These are just the ones the organisation has been able to verify, the actual number is believed to be much higher. As the country continues trying to control information about the novel coronavirus, it's likely that number will only increase.
Vietnam played host to 18 million international tourists in 2019, and is set to make over $30 billion from the industry. With beautiful locations, incredible food and a rich history, it’s not hard to see the appeal. However, think carefully as you tweet about your trip. It’s illegal to post information that could be seen as negative towards Vietnam. And, if you think you’re safe in the confines of the air-conditioned hotel, think again. Public internet is mandated by law to track user activity – this includes in internet cafes, and yes, your hotel.
Maybe you want to ride a camel, haggle in a marketplace and have your photo taken in front of the pyramids. Egypt may have all of this, but be careful with your browsing while you’re there. Heavy internet censorship laws mean that many sites are blocked, and anyone who visits a banned website, such as Al Jazeera, can be jailed for a year. In addition, the country takes action to ban sites and services occasionally. Most recently, during demonstrations in September, sites such as the BBC news site were blocked, and the WhatsApp messaging service was rendered unavailable.
Step away Cuba’s classic cars and lively jazz scene, and you’ll find more than a few problems with the internet. Technical limitations due to the US not allowing undersea cables to pass from Cuba to Florida means its connection relies heavily on Venezuela, some 6,000 miles away, or instead uses satellite connections that are prohibitively expensive for the average Cuban. In fact, its internet is so bad, that Cuba has its own infrastructure of media delivery, where enterprising Cubans load up USB drives with music, movies and other content, and rent them out. Poor connections aside, the Cuban internet is also heavily monitored and severely restricted. Your connection can be instantly terminated for “any violation of the norms of ethical behavior promoted by the Cuban state”. It’s not unusual for emails to arrive severely delayed, and with attachments missing.
Dubai has increasingly become a popular spot for European tourists seeking winter sun and air-conditioned glamor. Yet, the United Arab Emirates has also made it into the top ten of our index. A lack of online liberties is probably not totally shocking for a country in which it’s illegal for unmarried couples to share a hotel room. When it comes to the internet in the UAE, caution is advised. Heavy restrictions on what is permissible online in the country are not merely suggestions. Last year, two foreign visitors were sentenced to three months in prison for exchanging nude photographs on WhatsApp. The country also has a blanket ban on VoIP applications, the use of which is punishable by fine or jail time. Don’t try and Skype your grandma while you’re there, unless you want her last image of you to be being hauled away by the Dubai police force.
Even nations that seem entirely modern, such as Singapore, aren’t necessarily liberal when it comes to internet freedom. The country blocks websites that it feels threaten ‘family values’. These include pornographic sites, as well as other sites such as Ashley Madison, a dating site for married people looking to start affairs. Under the country’s Computer Misuse and Cybersecurity Act, authorities can collect information from any computer, without the need of court approval. Failure to comply can result in up to 10 years in prison. Singapore has also been responsible for shutting down websites and jailing bloggers. In 2016, Ai Takagi, editor of The Real Singapore, was given a prison sentence of 10 months for publishing material that was deemed to be stirring up “anti-foreigner” sentiments.
Countries with No Free Internet
The surprising inclusion of several popular tourist destinations aside, our internet censorship index is populated by plenty of countries you would probably very much expect to see. The likes of North Korea, China and Russia all have a reputation for a no-nonsense approach to cracking down on individual freedoms, and this carries over to the online world.
North Korea may come second to Turkmenistan in our rankings, but there's barely any light of day between the two when it comes to stamping down on online freedom. The country isolates itself online through its walled garden Kwangmyong service – the internet that is available to the general population. The service is only accessible from inside North Korea, and tourists and foreigners are forbidden from using it. As Kwangmyong doesn’t connect to any services outside of North Korea, it’s impossible to get outside information via the internet.
|1. Turkmenistan||11. Yemen||21. Laos|
|2. North Korea||12. Kazakhstan||22. Cuba|
|3. China||13. Belarus||23. Singapore|
|4. Eritrea||14. Bahrain||24. Uzbekistan|
|5. Iran||15. Iraq||25. Rwanda|
|6. Vietnam||16. Libya||26. Equatorial Guinea|
|7. Sudan||17. Egypt||27. Burundi|
|8. Syria||18. Saudi Arabia||28. Azerbaijan|
|9. Djibouti||19. Russia||29. United Arab Emirates|
|10. Turkey||20. Democratic Republic of Congo||30. Somalia|
China famously doesn’t allow its citizens to see anything that it doesn’t want them to. Dubbed “The Great Firewall of China”, it places huge restrictions on content. It is also fast to act on criticism of its leader, President Xi JinPing, which includes blocking all HBO content after John Oliver compared the leader to Winnie the Pooh.
There have also been cases of citizens being arrested and detained for calling their leader a coward in a private WeChat message, comparing him to Hitler, and using the banned nickname “steamed bun Xi”.
While its approach to online freedoms has drawn international condemnation, western tech giants have taken steps to fall into line with the Chinese state’s wishes, keen as they are to court this huge market.
How Did We Calculate our Internet Censorship Rankings?
When putting together our Index of Internet Censorship, we considered several factors. Freedom of information was a big concern, and so we took into account the act of blocking or censoring sites and outlets. These included social media, especially the heavy hitters such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as pornographic websites.
We also factored in each country’s approach to independent media, and whether they had an active policy of silencing those that spoke out against the government. Countries that routinely shut down news outlets and arrested bloggers found themselves among the top of our rankings. We also cross referenced our index with the work of Reporters Without Borders, which annually ranks press freedom figures by country.
Our ranking also noted where countries actively monitored their citizens’ online activities – even your browsing history could land you in serious trouble with the authorities.
It’s tempting for individuals to circumvent these oppressions by using a VPN service to get around state monitoring, or to access content that’s blocked in their own region. However, a number of the countries on our list block the use of VPNs altogether – a further penalty in our rankings. In China, for example, any use of a VPN is illegal. Russia, meanwhile, this year insisted that VPN providers join a “state IT system that contains a registry of banned websites.” Many major VPN brands refused to comply, effectively getting themselves blocked from use in Russia.
The Future of Online Censorship
If you think that you’ve got nothing to worry about, and have a ‘that could never happen here’ attitude, you may want to rethink.
Paradoxically, there are plenty of voices in the west calling for more online censorship, albeit in more controlled circumstances.
Last year saw a huge blacklash in Canada after Bell Canada, the country’s largest telecoms provider, proposed to block websites – ostensibly, targeting those that carried pirated material. However, many felt that this could be the start of a slippery slope that would infringe upon free speech and could see more than piracy sites blocked, if left unchecked. In the end, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission rejected the move, stating that the company didn’t have jurisdiction to police the internet.
Deplatforming and the issue of free speech
There’s a vigorous debate around where policing false or inflammatory comments begins, and where freedom of speech ends. Deplatforming – that is, removing the publication tools from an individual or group in order to silence them – can have mixed results, and companies tend to be reluctant to do it. A notable subject of debate has been the 8Chan message board site – a notorious hotbed of abusive and xenophobic messaging, and believed to have played a role in spurring on the perpetrator of August 2019 El Paso mass shooting. Responding to serious criticism of its initial reluctance to take action, CloudFlare earlier this year removed 8Chan site from its platform. While arguments are increasingly made for deplatforming, it can often have the effect of making a digital martyr of an already outspoken individual or group – just ask Alex Jones.
Policing political adverts
Facebook has come in for recent criticism for not doing enough to prevent the spread of false statements in political adverts. In response, Facebook stated: “We don’t believe that it’s an appropriate role for us to referee political debates. Nor do we think it would be appropriate to prevent a politician’s speech from reaching its audience and being subject to public debate and scrutiny.” In a memorable recent showdown in Congress with Dem. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Mark Zuckerberg was challenged over “a complete lack of fact-checking on political advertisements”. Tamely replying that “I think lying is bad”, Zuckerberg’s uncomfortable performance left plenty unresolved amid increasing calls for tighter oversight of online political statements.
Pornographic websites are banned in a number of the countries on our censorship index, including China, North Korea and Turkmenistan. Yet when it comes to unfettered access to adult content online, the west is becoming a little less wild. The UK has just ditched plans to control access to pornography under a poorly thought-out scheme. Users would need to prove they were over 18 by purchasing real-world permits and registering their details, just to get their rocks off. If the idea of the government having access to this sort of data isn’t appealing, then it’s no surprise that the UK’s populace breathed a collective sigh – of relief – when the scheme was ditched. However, Australia has since followed suit, with an even more concerning proposal that involves a facial recognition database for pornography users.
Cozying up to dictatorships
Then, there’s the issue of Western companies fraternizing with countries which already have heavy censorship policies. Recent criticism of China’s Hong Kong policy saw gaming company Blizzard strip one of its prize-winning players of his winnings, and banning him from future competitions. Although it insists the decision wasn’t influenced by other countries, Blizzard is part owned by Chinese investors. Similarly, Apple removed an app from the Apple Store that was aiding Hong Kong protestors, after criticism from China.
Then there’s Facebook. For years, it’s been trying to get a foothold in China, working with the country to offer a highly restrictive and censored version of its service. It’s only within the past few days, after more than a decade of activity in this area, that Mark Zuckerberg has voiced the opinion that bending to the will of countries that don’t share US-values could be problematic.
The digital noose tightens
Things could also get worse for those countries that are already severely censored. Not content with its current clampdown on the internet, Russia is currently experimenting with cutting off its internet from foreign access. If successful, it means that much like North Korea’s walled-off service, nobody outside Russia will be able to access it, and nobody within Russia will be able to get beyond it. Russia is framing the move as its way to disconnect the country in the case of a cyber attack, but it could also prove a way for authorities to fully control the internet. For a country that has already all-but banned VPNs, this could be a tempting next step.
While the countries we’ve covered in the index represent the extreme end of the spectrum, there is plenty to suggest that one day, unfettered access to content online could also be under threat, even in more liberal countries.