Internet Censorship by Country: Meet the Most-Censored Nations of the World
More than half of the world's population uses the internet every day, but not everyone is granted the same freedom when browsing. Find out which countries rank the highest when it comes to internet censorship.
We're witnessing a rapid decline in internet freedom, with only a handful of countries allowing access to truly uncensored cyberspace. Often justified as a way to improve user safety online, censorship imposes restrictions on content and, in doing so, affects human rights.
For over a decade, global internet freedom has been experiencing a steady decline. Nearly two-thirds of people who use the internet will have their content censored if they criticize the government. Sharing an opinion online has led to arrests and prosecution in some countries.
The internet content is often restricted in one way or another, not only in authoritarian regimes. This article will discuss internet censorship by country, focusing on some countries that impose the harshest restrictions.
Key Methods Used To Censor the Internet
There are many ways to block or restrict the use of the internet, commonly by limiting or blocking torrents, news media, VPNs, pornography, social media, and VoIP apps. All of these limitations fall under the umbrella of censorship.
The two most commonly used methods for censoring the internet are prohibiting citizens from using the internet and filtering the available content. These types of internet censorship have proven successful enough for most governments that want to control the use of the internet in their countries.
Prohibiting the Use of the Internet
Countrywide censorship can be observed in some of the one-party states around the world. When imposing national internet restrictions, the government will cut off most of the population from using the internet freely, allowing access to only a small number of users who tend to be government officials or somehow else friendly with the authorities.
The restricted content is subject to regime approval, usually based on its benevolence to the ruling administration. Internet limitations are commonly carried out when elections or uprisings happen. Oppressive governments resort to temporary and complete internet shutdowns, making the free circulation of information and group organizing extremely challenging.
Content Filtering on the Internet
The more common and less inconspicuous approach to censorship is filtering the content. It's done by blocking the websites that are deemed problematic or dangerous. As long as users reside in a particular territory, the restricted web pages will be unavailable.
There are systems set in place to discover unwanted topics and delete them. Algorithms look for keywords and automatically ban the content based on the search results. Still, there were instances where the topics were manually discovered and blocked by government officials. Whatever the case, citizens are left with restricted internet access.
Governments and organizations order censorship and content filtering, but internet service providers are the ones to carry out the process. Internet restrictions may come through:
- Blocking IP addresses: ISP seeks to identify and block particular IP addresses. Different websites that use the same server often end up as collateral damage, even though their content is not necessarily regarded as dangerous or offensive.
- Removing pages from search engines: Sometimes, authorities work together with search engine owners so that they can remove certain websites from the search results. However, if users know the website's exact URL, which they can type in the browser and access the web page, the removal can be surpassed.
- URL filtering: The filtering method involves searching for specific keywords that help flag and ban the content.
What Are the Most Censored Countries in the World?
Following is the list of countries where the internet is closely monitored and censored. Any criticism against the government can lead to questioning or even arrest and imprisonment. This is what internet censorship around the world looks like.
- North Korea
North Korea is probably almost everyone's first association when discussing internet censorship and political repression. The internet in North Korea is completely censored. No foreign media is allowed, internet pornography is banned, and VPNs are blocked. Messaging apps from outside of North Korea are not available, and the only options users have are those made in the country, which are most likely closely monitored. The only type of news available is censored news.
Only those in power or closely related to the political elite have the luxury of using the internet. Some schools and institutions use a form of the internet called Kwangmyong, and - as expected - it’s tightly controlled.
Netizens across the world will typically read the news, look up the traffic information and check on their friends through social media, all before lunch. For those living in China, this goes a bit differently. Google is banned in its entirety, and so are Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube. This is not to say that there are no options to do all these things in China. However, these options might look slightly different. Popular choices are Weibo, WeChat, and Douyin social media platforms.
Some people still manage to surpass the restrictions via one of the VPNs that still work well, as China prohibited the use of personal VPNs in 2017. Some users were even faced with authorities coming to their homes and asking them to delete their social media posts.
In 2017, the government also decided that websites or social media accounts can’t publish news without the permission of the appropriate government body. During the sweep, locking foreign social media, search engines, news media, and other content and applications is enforced by legislative actions and technologies called the Great Firewall. Government censorship is present on the internet but also in the media. Along with Iran and Eritrea, China is notorious for journalist imprisonment.
Countries with internet censorship, such as Iran, allow only those VPNs approved by the authorities, making them almost entirely useless. While foreign VPNs are banned, torrenting is not completely blocked. Social media is tightly restricted, and this trend is on the rise, while pornography is wholly forbidden. Youtube, Twitter, and Facebook are also blocked, with likely banning of other social media websites in the future.
Although banned, some VPNs work relatively well and can be used for accessing some of these websites or apps. Many messaging apps are blocked, but those developed in Iran and subjected to censorship are available to all. Political media is completely censored and controlled by the state.
Countries that restrict the internet enforce strict measures throughout critical events. During the anti-government protests in 2017, the Iranian government decided to shut down the internet and used hacking campaigns against the reporters. Iran is one of the countries that doesn't hesitate to jail those considered the state’s enemies.
On election day in 2021, the Belarus government shut down the internet for 61 hours nationwide. The administration continued with internet shutdowns, mainly because the anti-government protests took place every Sunday after the elections.
Belarus has also restricted the use of social media and VPNs and severely censors political media. Since 2009, all media outlets need to register with the state or risk getting blocked.
When the Mass Media Law was amended in 2021, tighter restrictions on the free flow of information ensued. Live reporting was banned, and the number of officials blocking access to online material was broadened, leaving Belarus with even more censored news and more internet restrictions.
Cuba has a long way to go to improve the internet freedom of its citizens. Lately, efforts have been made to increase internet access for the citizens of Cuba. One such example was the decision of the government to establish public WiFi points in multiple locations. However, these access points are closely monitored.
The state uses keyword filters, blocks IPs, and checks the browsing history of internet users. The cost of the internet is still relatively high in Cuba, so a mere ten percent of citizens have access to it. Uncensored internet, or at least a version of it with fewer restrictions, is still far from reality.
Thailand tightly censors political media and restricts social media and VPNs. Citizens posting unverified content about the COVID-19 pandemic and criticizing the government's response were harassed, arrested, and legally prosecuted. One of the most shocking decisions was the prison sentence of 43 years for uploading a Youtube video in which the person posting criticized the monarchy.
Thailand has recorded a significant rise in government censorship of the internet. In 2020, the Thai government banned porn and gambling websites. The ban resulted in 190 porn websites being taken down and the hashtag #SavePornhub trending in Thailand. Despite the government's claims that they are protecting the morals of its citizens, many users wonder if the real reason behind the ban were certain images of the royal family available on these websites.
Turkmenistan has also banned foreign social media altogether. E-Dostluk, a social network service for Turkmen language speakers, is the only available source of entertainment.
There is no such thing as uncensored internet in Turkmenistan. There is only one internet provider, and that's the government. Most websites are blocked, and all email accounts from Yahoo, Hotmail, and Gmail are closely monitored. Some media outlets work in exile, and the police often question those who visit certain websites, making self-censoring common.
Twenty four journalists were jailed in Eritrea without a fair trial in 2015 alone. Internet access is mainly available in internet cafes, making it easier for the government to monitor online activity. The internet speed is quite slow across the entire country, making the free flow of information complicated. Eritrea has one of the lowest penetration rates in the world, where only 8% of the population has internet access.
Governments commonly restrict social media apps in most African countries, especially during elections. Eritrea, however, has completely blocked all access to apps such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Syria has an elaborate system to control internet usage, and government censorship can be noticed almost everywhere. Most households do not have internet access, so people are left to rely on internet cafes. Users who want to go online must provide IDs, record their use time, and report the information to the authorities.
- Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia has a long history of restricting its citizens' freedoms. Any attempt at criticizing the government is harshly punished, and people are even arrested for ‘spreading atheism.’ For people to become bloggers, they need to obtain a license from the government, and any straying from the strict guidelines results in revoking the license and taking down the website.
Since many sites are blocked, using a VPN seems natural. However, the connection breaks constantly, and if the government finds out a user used a VPN and visited prohibited content, they will be arrested. Saudi Arabia might seem like one of the least censored countries compared to the others we mentioned, but that is not the case - a lot needs to be done so the citizens can enjoy more freedoms while surfing the web.
Internet censorship by country varies around the world, but the fact is that almost every country restricts digital content to a certain degree. While some governments justify filtering the content by wanting to protect children or internet users, others simply forbid open criticism of the authorities and their decisions.
Although the use of VPNs can allow forbidden content to be accessed, governments often restrict VPNs, and people get arrested for visiting illegal websites in their countries. It is unknown whether we will see improvement in internet freedoms soon.
The least censored countries are Iceland, Taiwan, Costa Rica, and Canada.
The First Amendment, which protects the freedom of speech and expression, extends to the internet, which results in very few internet restrictions in the USA.
Eritrea is the least connected country - around 8% of the population uses the internet.
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