Almost 54 percent of the world’s population (4.1 billion people) uses the internet. It’s our source of instant information, entertainment, news, and social interactions.
But where in the world can citizens enjoy equal and open internet access – if anywhere?
In this exploratory study, our researchers have conducted a country-by-country comparison to see which countries impose the harshest internet restrictions and where citizens can enjoy the most online freedom. This includes restrictions or bans for torrenting, pornography, social media, and VPNs, and restrictions or heavy censorship of political media.
Although the usual culprits take the top spots, a few seemingly free countries rank surprisingly high. With ongoing restrictions and pending laws, our online freedom is at more risk than ever.
We scored each country on five criteria, each worth two points. One point earned if the content—torrents, pornography, news media, social media, VPNs—is restricted but accessible, and two points if it is banned entirely. The higher the score, the more censorship.
Top 10 worst countries for Internet censorship
- North Korea (10/10) – There isn’t anything North Korea doesn’t heavily censor thanks to its iron grip over the entire internet. Users are unable to use social media, watch porn, or use torrents or VPNs. And all of the political media published in the country is created by The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) – the only source permitted to publish news.
- China (9/10) – Porn, VPNs*, and Western social media are blocked, while political media is heavily restricted. Journalists often face severe prison sentences if they publish anything that goes against the government. New online regulations mean members of the public can be jailed for simply sharing or commenting on news posts. China’s Great Firewall is one of the most advanced web censorship systems in the world. The only point China claws back is for its torrenting laws (or lack of). Copyright laws aren’t heavily monitored within China, so there isn’t technically a ban on torrenting. However, due to China’s excessive online censorship, torrent websites are restricted.
- Russia, Turkmenistan, and Iran (8/10) – These countries heavily censor political media but have different laws when it comes to all other areas.
- Russia blocks torrenting sites and VPNs* but doesn’t completely block porn or social media. Some of the top porn sites have been blocked in Russia but, according to Russian law, watching porn isn’t illegal (but producing it is). Some social media sites are also accessible but these too are heavily monitored and controlled (users have to register with their mobile phone numbers to remove anonymity). However, with Russia’s plans to build its own internet, these restrictions could become even more severe.
- Iran also blocks VPNs (only government-approved ones are permitted which renders them almost useless) but doesn’t completely ban torrenting. Pornography is also banned but social media is permitted to some extent. News media is heavily censored.
- In contrast, Turkmenistan blocks social media and porn but doesn’t have as severe restrictions on torrenting and VPN use.
- Belarus, Turkey, Oman, Pakistan, United Arab Emirates, and Eritrea (7/10) – All of these countries score the same due to very similar approaches to internet censorship. Porn is banned/blocked in all of these countries and political media is also heavily censored. Only Pakistan bans torrenting and only Eritrea bans social media, but both are free of restrictions for VPNs unlike all of the other countries which restrict, but do not ban, their use.
*Even though VPNs are technically blocked, some do still work in both China and Russia. This is the same with porn websites. Many porn websites will create “mirror” sites to give access to people in restricted countries, but these will often be blocked once authorities become aware of them.
|Score||Country||Torrents Restricted?||Torrents Banned or Shut Down?||Pornography Restricted?||Pornography Banned?||Political Media Restricted?||Political Media Heavily Censored?||Social Media Restricted?||Social Media Banned?||VPNs Restricted||VPNs Banned?|
|7||United Arab Emirates||1||0||1||1||1||1||1||0||1||0|
|5||Papua New Guinea||1||0||1||1||1||0||1||0||0||0|
|4||Democratic Republic of Congo||1||0||0||0||1||1||1||0||0||0|
|3||Central African Republic||1||0||0||0||1||1||0||0||0||0|
|2||Republic of North Macedonia||1||0||0||0||1||0||0||0||0||0|
|1||Bosnia and Herzegovina||1||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|1||Trinidad and Tobago||1||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|South and Central America|
Which countries ban or block torrenting sites?
Every country has some form of restriction when it comes to torrenting. This is often a restriction in the copyright law or in the uploading of content. However, only some countries are actively blocking torrenting sites.
A handful of European countries have introduced measures but aren’t blocking websites as of yet. These include Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia. As they aren’t blocking torrenting sites, these haven’t been scored as having “sites blocked” and are instead scored as being “restricted.”
Which countries ban or block online pornography?
As we can see from the below map, many countries across Asia and Africa restrict or block porn. But there may also be a few surprises in there – the UK and Australia. Both of these have some restrictions when it comes to online porn and both are trying to impose even tougher restrictions.
In the UK, a new law was introduced in 2017 – the Digital Economy Act. Part 3 of the act, dubbed the “porn block,” sought to ensure porn websites confirmed a user’s age by taking card details or a copy of their ID (passport or driver’s license). However, this part of the act met a lot of criticism, suggesting it violates privacy and goes against privacy laws. At the time of writing, it still hasn’t been implemented.
Even without this section of the law being action, the UK’s laws surrounding pornography are still more restrictive than many other EU countries with the censorship of “extreme” content and other such safeguards.
In Australia, the Broadcasting Service Act 1992 illegalizes watching internet porn, establishing it as a fineable offense. However, only some towns and cities have tried to establish a full ban.
All Australians may find themselves having to give up their anonymity if they want to watch porn in the future. The Australian government has proposed that the Document Verification Service and Face Verification Service that’s currently in place to tackle identity theft and cybercrime should also be used in the login process for gambling and pornographic websites. Using facial recognition, this technology would ensure those wanting to access these sites were 18 or over. Users of these sites would lose their anonymity and they would have to hand over their biometric data to the government. This poses serious privacy threats, particularly given the Australian government has been the victim of hacking recently.
Which countries restrict or block social media?
Again, a lot of African and Asian countries, along with some South American countries, restrict social media use. Bans on social media aren’t as widespread but this tends to be because a lot of countries will block social media for certain periods of time.
For example, quite a few countries block social networks during elections. This is often the case in Africa with Mauritania recently disrupting connectivity following a disputed election. Ethiopia also shut down the internet during national exams to curb cheating, while Somalia banned social media when exams were taking place in high schools across the country.
Meanwhile, in Chad, a 16-month social media ban finally came to an end in July 2019. The reason for the ban was “national security.”
At present, China, Eritrea, Turkmenistan, and North Korea are the only countries to impose full and ongoing blocks on social media. But several countries could soon follow suit if their plans for further restrictions come to fruition.
A number of governments are trying to crack down on fake news, which means imposing stricter sanctions on social media sites. For example, in India, the government has plans to regulate social media due to the “disruption” it causes. This follows their attempt to get WhatsApp to allow them to trace users’ messages.
In Russia, a new law gives officials sweeping powers to restrict web traffic as ISPs are required to install deep packet inspection (DPI) on their servers. This will allow officials to identify traffic sources and filter or block content. Russia’s plans to build its own internet by 2021, so global social media sites like Facebook and Twitter may be severely censored or entirely blocked. But this may happen as early as this year if both companies fail to comply with Russia’s request to store users’ data within the country.
Whatever the reasoning behind a government’s plans to place restrictions on social media, one thing is clear – free speech and privacy are at far greater risk if they do so.
Which countries restrict or heavily censor news media?
A large number of countries restrict news media in some way, whether it’s through severe sanctions for journalists who talk about taboo subjects or the removal of online websites that try to publish independent news.
Canada, Australia, the majority of European countries, and some Southern American countries enable free online speech for journalists.
Some of the worst culprits include Turkmenistan, North Korea, Eritrea, China, and Vietnam (the worst-ranked countries in the World Press Freedom Index).
In Turkmenistan, anything that’s published on the internet is strictly censored and few citizens have access to the internet anyway. Journalists working for foreign media outlets have been known to be physically attacked, arrested, and tortured.
Things are much the same in North Korea where anything that is published is done so in a very controlled and censored manner. Anyone reading, watching, or listening to news from outside of North Korea might find themselves being sent to a concentration camp.
Eritreans will rarely view any news that hasn’t been vetted by the dictatorship, and things don’t look as though they’re going to improve anytime soon. President Issayas Afeworki said, “Those who think there will be democracy in this country can think so in another world.”
In China, all privately-owned media is tightly controlled by the Communist Party and foreign journalists frequently find themselves in dangerous situations. According to Reporters Without Borders’ latest report, over 120 bloggers and journalists are currently imprisoned in life-threatening conditions.
Vietnamese journalists don’t have it much better, either. All of them have to follow the orders of the Communist Party and persecution is common with plainclothes officers often subjecting them to violence. Any foreign online media source has to use Vietnamese servers to store their data and must submit this to the authorities when asked.
The above are just a handful of examples of some of the testing conditions journalists are having to work in to try and bring citizens impartial news. But many other countries are also threatening freedom of speech with their rules and regulations. For example, the United States continues to fall down the World Press Freedom Index rankings due to an increasingly hostile environment. This trend only looks set to continue as President Trump repeatedly states the press is an “enemy of the American people.”
Which countries restrict or ban VPNs?
Only a handful of countries restrict VPNs and North Korea*, China, Russia, and Iraq, are the only countries to block them entirely. In the United Arab Emirates, VPNs are illegal if they’re used to commit fraud or a crime but are available for institutions and companies. In Iran, VPNs are only permitted if they’re approved by the government, which means they’re not offering the security and privacy many people want.
In the countries where VPNs are restricted, governments often block access to these services even though they’re not technically “illegal.”
*Even though there is some gray area over whether or not North Korea bans VPNs, it is highly likely they won’t be available due to how heavily the government censors the internet there.
Will online censorship become the “norm?”
While it’s no great surprise to see the likes of China, Russia, and North Korea topping the list, the growing number of restrictions in many other countries is greatly concerning.
From the UK and Australia’s potential porn blocks to growing political media hostility in the US, our online freedom is something we can no longer take for granted.
Thankfully, VPNs do still offer a way for many of us to surf the net privately (and legally). But as censorship becomes increasingly common, more and more countries could join the restricted list, putting citizens’ digital privacy at risk.