More than 65 percent of the world’s population (5.3 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, VPNs, news media, and messaging/VoIP apps.
Although the usual culprits take the top spots, a few seemingly free countries rank surprisingly high. Due to ongoing restrictions and pending laws, our online freedom is at more risk than ever.
We scored each country on six criteria. Each of these is worth two points aside from messaging/VoIP apps, which is worth one (this is due to many countries banning or restricting certain apps but allowing ones run by the government/telecoms providers within the country). The country receives one point if the content—torrents, pornography, news media, social media, VPNs, messaging/VoIP apps—is restricted but accessible, and two points if it is banned entirely or has been subject to widespread shutdowns. The higher the score, the more censorship.
The worst countries for internet censorship
- North Korea, China, and Iran (11/11) – Once again, China and North Korea are at the top of the list with the highest score possible. But this time, they’re joined by Iran due to increased efforts to block VPNs and attempts to create a VPN scheme with government oversight. Users can face criminal charges for using unapproved VPNs. Users in all three countries are unable to use Western social media or watch porn. News media is heavily censored and influenced by the government. They also shut down messaging apps from abroad, forcing residents to use ones that have been made (and are likely controlled) within the country, e.g. WeChat in China. Not only does WeChat have no form of end-to-end encryption, but the app also has backdoors that enable third parties to access messages.
- Iraq, Myanmar, Pakistan, and Turkmenistan (10/11): In second place this year are Iraq, Myanmar, Pakistan, and Turkmenistan. All of the countries bar Pakistan scrape back a point due to torrenting not being completely banned or shut down. Pakistan’s score of 10 is due to some VPNs being available there. Iraq has increased its control over the internet with various shutdowns (including on social media) during exam periods and protests. These shutdowns were witnessed across Myanmar, Pakistan, and Turkmenistan during the reporting period, too.
- Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (9/11): While the UAE’s score remains the same, both Russia and Saudi Arabia saw declines in this update. Russia has blocked many external websites, social media channels, and messaging apps but has discussed legalizing piracy of Western movies and TV shows. It suggested this would have an impact on profits and would hopefully make certain platforms go bankrupt. Pornography and VPNs aren’t completely banned or blocked in Russia. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia upped its attempts to combat torrenting with the country’s media giant (the MBC Group) joining the Alliance for Creativity and Entertainment and blocking many websites. Social media and VPNs are restricted but not completely blocked in Saudi Arabia. This is the same in the UAE.
Even though VPNs are technically blocked in some countries, some still work. Similarly, many porn websites create “mirror” sites to give access to people in restricted countries, but these will often be blocked once authorities become aware of them.
Online censorship in Europe
- 21 countries have banned or shut down torrenting sites. A further 21 European countries have measures in place but aren’t actively blocking websites yet.
- Belarus saw an improvement in torrenting as it legalized piracy from ‘unfriendly’ countries that have imposed restrictions on it due to its support of Russia in the war.
- While torrenting websites are often blocked in Spain (hence why it is classed as having shut down torrenting sites), rules do permit torrenting for personal use (downloading to view but not to upload or distribute).
- Belarus has a complete ban/block on pornography while Lithuania, Turkey, and Ukraine restrict it. Germany and the UK have also increased their restrictions on online pornography. Germany has implemented an age-verification system for online adult sites and is currently threatening to pull Canadian porn sites (including Pornhub, YouPorn, and MyDirtyHobby) due to their refusal to comply. The UK’s recently introduced Online Safety Bill will implement age-verification requirements for porn sites, too. And France is trying to follow suit but legislation is yet to be enforced.
- Political media is restricted in 17 countries, while two countries – Belarus and Turkey – heavily censor political media.
- No European countries block or ban social media but four do restrict it. These are Belarus, Spain, Turkey, and Ukraine. Turkey restricted Twitter following the earthquake to try and quell ‘misinformation.’
- Turkey and Belarus also restrict the use of VPNs and VoIP/messaging services. Turkey has introduced a new law that restricts end-to-end encryption, requiring providers to hand over data/decrypt data.
Online censorship in North America
- Canada, Mexico, and the United States have banned or shut down torrenting sites.
- Cuba and the United States have restrictions for online pornography. In the US, several states (including Arkansas, Texas, Utah, and Virginia) have passed laws that require age verification for such sites.
- Three countries (El Salvador, Mexico, and Panama) have some restrictions across their political media, while Cuba, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua heavily censor it. For example, during this update, attacks and legal threats against journalists increased in Guatemala, and a number of journalists are reported to have been killed in Honduras over the last year or so.
- Cuba, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua have restrictions across social media platforms. In Nicaragua, authorities are reported to have implemented a surveillance technology that enables them to monitor social media posts.
- Cuba is the only country to restrict VPN use.
- Messaging and VoIP apps are met with restrictions in Cuba and Mexico. Belize has previously restricted them but reports suggest this has improved in recent years.
Online censorship in South America
- Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, and Uruguay actively block torrenting websites. Recent operations in Brazil and Peru saw a large number of websites being taken down, and Uruguay introduced a decree that enables websites like Pirate Bay to be blocked.
- Pornography is only restricted in Venezuela.
- News media restrictions have increased in South America with all but Suriname noting some restrictions. In Uruguay, for example, journalists face increasing threats and lawsuits, and a new Accountability Bill could limit their freedom even further. Venezuela heavily censors political media with persistent attempts to control the news and silence independent media outlets.
- Venezuela still has social media restrictions, while Brazil and Suriname have seen increased restrictions. In Brazil, social media accounts and information have been reported to be blocked or deleted and the government proposed new powers that would help it combat ‘fake news.’ In Suriname, social media was restricted following cost of living protests.
- Venezuela is the only country to restrict VPNs, and some are blocked.
- Three countries restrict messaging/VoIP apps (Brazil, Suriname, and Venezuela). In Brazil, Telegram was blocked for two days before it complied with a court order, and the cost of living protests in Suriname brought similar blocks.
Online censorship in Asia
- 21 Asian countries have blocked or banned torrenting sites. The Philippines, Saudi Arabia, and Vietnam all increased their attempts to block websites in the last year.
- The majority of Asian countries have restrictions on online pornography (42 out of the 49 we covered) with 30 of these having full bans/blocks.
- News media is heavily restricted and censored in Asia. Only two countries–Taiwan and Timor-Leste–don’t impose vast restrictions. The majority of other countries (32 in total) are subject to heavy censorship. Iraq and Kuwait increased censorship over the last year or so.
- A large number (30) of these countries restrict social media platforms in some way. Nine countries go one step further and carry out frequent shutdowns or full bans across popular social media platforms.
- Six countries have full bans/blocks on VPN use (China, Iran, Iraq, Myanmar, North Korea, and Turkmenistan), and a further 15 impose restrictions.
- Messaging and VoIP app restrictions are also commonplace in Asia with 21 countries implementing some form of limitation. Russia recently banned foreign messaging services within its government agencies. Telegram is blocked by many service providers in Sri Lanka.
Online censorship in Africa
- Egypt is the only African country to actively shut down torrenting sites. Egypt recently shutdown three illegal streaming sports websites, MyCima, and Shahed4U.
- 21 African countries restrict online pornography. Seven of these have full bans (Botswana, Burkina Faso, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda).
- Only three African countries don’t have widespread restrictions on news media–Namibia, the Seychelles, and South Africa. But 20 heavily censor it.
- 37 of the African countries we covered implement social media restrictions but only Eritrea and Ethiopia have gone so far as to continually block access to social media sites. Ethiopia saw a five-month shutdown across various social media channels earlier this year.
- Egypt and Uganda are the only two countries to restrict VPN use. Uganda did see some improvements but many are still blocked.
- Egypt is one of 11 African countries to restrict the use of messaging/VoIP apps. In this update, Algeria blocked some apps during exam periods, and Somalia shut down Telegram citing ‘horrific content’ and ‘misinformation.’
Online censorship in Oceania
- Australia and New Zealand are the only countries to strictly enforce torrenting bans/blocks.
- Australia recently decided it wouldn’t introduce age-verification restrictions for online porn, meaning Papua New Guinea is the only country with limitations on online porn (possession of porn is illegal there but online sites are available and widely used).
- Political media is restricted in Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and Tonga. Samoa did see improvements, rising from 45/180 to 19/180 in the RSF Press Freedom Rankings.
- Papua New Guinea has the ability to restrict social media through its cybercrime law, which was introduced in 2016. Fiji has warned residents not to express anything on social media that opposes some new local laws.
- None of the Oceania countries restrict the use of VPNs or VoIP/messaging apps.
See also: Best VPNs to watch Porn Anonymously
Will online censorship become the “norm?”
While it’s no great surprise to see the likes of China, North Korea, and Iran topping the list, the growing number of restrictions in many other countries is greatly concerning. This year we saw more than 50 countries increase their internet censorship in some way, compared to 27 from last year’s study. Most of the new restrictions surround social media/apps, political media, and pornography.
With the growing introduction of age-verification systems in the likes of the UK, US, and Germany and new online laws that enable governments to monitor and often censor social media, our digital privacy is at increasing risk.
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, leaving many unable to access the open web.
To find out to what extent each country is censored, we studied what restrictions, if any, they impose across torrents, pornography, political media, social media, VPNs, and messaging/VoIP apps.
We scored each country on six criteria. Each of these is worth two points aside from messaging/VoIP apps which is worth one (this is due to many countries banning or restricting certain apps but allowing ones run by the government/telecoms providers within the country). A country receives one point if the content—torrents, pornography, news media, social media, VPNs, messaging/VoIP apps—is restricted but accessible, and two points if it is banned entirely. The higher the score, the more censorship.
In this revisit, we noted pornography restrictions when OnlyFans had been banned or restricted in the country.
In some cases, countries may be scored as having banned one of these areas, but residents may find ways to circumnavigate these bans, e.g. with VPNs or mirror sites. However, as the country enforces this ban by blocking websites or implementing laws, the country is scored as having banned it. On the other hand, if a country has brought in regulations to try and restrict or ban an area but users continue to be able to freely use these services/websites, the country is only scored as being “restricted” because the regulations/laws aren’t being enforced.
Data researcher: Rebecca Moody
For a full list of sources, please request access here (stating your name and requirements).
Internet censorship FAQs
What is the Communications Decency Act (CDA)?
The Communications Decency Act (CDA) was the United States Congress’s first attempt to regulate pornographic material on the Internet. The CDA was introduced as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The CDA made it a crime to use any telecommunications device to send or receive obscene or indecent material. The CDA also created a safe harbor for Internet service providers, shielding them from liability for user-generated content.
How big of a problem is censorship in schools?
Censorship in schools is a growing problem that has recently gained more attention. With the rise of technology, it has become easier for school administrators to monitor and control the content students are exposed to. This can lead to issues such as limiting access to important information and resources or preventing students from expressing their opinions.