In many countries around the world, internet access is not as free as it could be. In fact, a more accurate statement would probably be that there are very few countries in the world with little or no internet censorship or surveillance. Most countries try to control how their citizens use the internet, and in recent years even more countries have been joining this group.In some cases, the control is minimal, focusing mainly on pornographic sites, or on illegal content such as indecent images of children. In other cases however, government control over the internet is much more widespread and severe, covering any content that could be deemed even slightly offensive, political criticism, information that could be related to national security, and even social media sites.
Here is a list of ten countries that are particularly strict when it comes to the internet.
The organization Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF, or ‘Reporters Without Borders’ in English) includes Bahrain in its list of countries that are “enemies of the internet”. According to RSF, countries on this list are noted “not just for their capacity to censor news and information online but also for their almost systematic repression of Internet users”. OpenNet Initiative (ONI), a now defunct project to monitor internet suppression and surveillance, has said that Bahrain has pervasive filtering of political and social content online, substantial filtering of various internet tools (including communication tools and tools to bypass filters), and selective filtering of conflict and security content.
In general, Bahrain exercises strict control over information and expression. The international media’s access to the country is severely restricted, and activists of all kinds are harshly clamped down upon. Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have criticized the government’s attitude to human rights and freedom of expression. Bahrain’s Ministry of Culture and Information forces all internet service providers (ISPs) to use website blocking software, along with several other measures to control the flow of content. The Ministry selects the software solution that ISPs have to use, and in addition, is fully in charge of operating the solution. This effectively means that ISPs have no say in which sites are accessible to users – the Ministry of Culture and Information makes these decisions and implements them as well.
According to most reports, China’s censorship of the internet is among the strictest and possibly also the most effective in the world, with regulations and laws that are quite extreme. The country is of course on RSF’s “enemies of the internet” list, and ONI has described internet censorship in China as either pervasive or substantial in all areas. Numerous topics and activities are regarded by the government as too contentious or dangerous to be allowed, including freedom of speech as a concept, the notorious Tiananmen Square protests, the status of Taiwan and Tibet, police brutality and government oppression in general, the Falun Gong movement, and plenty more. Even online petitions and protests, or any criticism of corruption, is frowned upon.
Blogging websites and international social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as YouTube, are blocked in China. Of course, the international popularity of such websites has meant that homegrown versions have arisen, allowing Chinese citizens to express themselves anyway. However, people need to be careful about what they say – in addition to the blocking of content, there is widespread monitoring of internet activity, and many people have been arrested and imprisoned for their online activities and statements. Amnesty International says that the strength of the police force required just to implement internet laws is up to 50,000.
Internet penetration in Cuba is extremely limited, and even basic computer access is among the lowest in the world. In Latin America, Cuba has a lower ratio of computers per person than any other country. Due to the closed nature of Cuba in general, ONI’s profile of Cuba relies only on secondary sources, but the country is classified as an “enemy of the internet” by RSF.
According to ONI, the severely limited access to the internet in Cuba is due to a combination of factors: deliberate Cuban government policy itself, involving special permits, blocking of websites, strict monitoring, severe penalties, and so on; a general lack of economic resources among the populace; the US trade embargo on Cuba; and “reverse filtering” efforts by the US government, so that sites cannot be accessed from Cuba. In 2007, it became legal for Cuban citizens to buy personal computers, and since 2013 they have been able to sign up with the government-run telecom company for public internet access. However, access is still extremely limited due to poor infrastructure and government filtering.
Internet use in Iran has increased considerably in recent years, and the country has quite high internet penetration; however, government control here is still among the strictest in the world. The government even limits internet speeds quite severely in order to discourage internet use and also to limit the kind of data that users have access to. There is also extensive blocking and monitoring of internet use. Filtering systems are in place both at the central level and at the level of the ISPs. Iranian citizens are only allowed to use locally developed email services, and all others are blocked. In fact, it is estimated that half of all websites that are popular around the rest of the world are blocked in Iran. This has included Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Google Plus. In general, content that is critical of the government or of religion, websites that are pornographic, “un-Islamic”, or even of a political nature in any way are blocked. In addition, many bloggers have been harassed and imprisoned for their online activities. In recent years, government officials have talked about plans to implement an internal network to replace access to the main internet.
The government controls all means of communication in North Korea, which has one of the lowest rates of internet penetration in the world. The government basically uses the internet as a propaganda tool and to attract foreign investment. It is estimated that only 4% of North Korean citizens have access to the internet, and this too is strictly censored and monitored.
In fact, the average citizen doesn’t really have access to the internet, but to a national intranet that was set up in 2000 by the government. This network, known as Kwangmyong (which means “bright” in English), contains only pages, websites, and services that have been cleared by the government for publication. These include an email service, a social network, and a news service, all of which are of course locally created, and contain limited content in the fields of politics, science, economics, and so on. Only a small group of people, specifically authorized by the government, have access to the real internet. In 2014, it was estimated that Kwangmyong had only between 1,000 and 5,500 websites, whereas the estimate for the World Wide Web reached one billion that year.
The general environment in Saudi Arabia is known to be severely repressive and restrictive, so of course it’s no surprise that the internet is also heavily censored and controlled. Content filtering in Saudi Arabia began with a resolution by the Council of Ministers in 2001, which was later expanded to the Anti Cyber Crime Law of 2007, a wide-ranging law with severe penalties for offenders. The government uses a centrally controlled filtering software, based on two lists that it maintains. It also maintains a website with a form where citizens can report sites for blocking if they wish to. ONI has described Saudi’s approach as “the most aggressive censorship focused on pornography, drug use, gambling, religious conversion of Muslims, and filtering circumvention tools”. Definitions of what is considered immoral, a threat to security or public order, or against the religion of Islam are extremely broad, and thousands and thousands of websites are filtered by the government.
The Committee to Protect Journalists has called Syria the third most censored country in the world, and much of this censorship happens on the internet. In addition to pervasive filtering and blocking of content, the government has entirely turned off internet connectivity in the country several times in the last few years (although it has blamed terrorists and dissidents for this), closely monitors internet use, and frequently harasses and arrests bloggers whose activities it disapproves of. Internet-related laws in Syria are vague and can be broadly interpreted, allowing the government to act with impunity, and forcing internet users to censor themselves and guard their anonymity when possible. A lot of the conflict between Syrian opposition activists and the government takes place online, with websites being regularly launched and blocked, and numerous cyber attacks. A group of hackers known as the Syrian Electronic Army regularly targets local and international websites for publishing content that it considers to be against the government and the country, and also spies on activists and aid workers.
United Arab Emirates
RSF described the internet in the UAE as “under surveillance” in the past, and, once again, now includes the country in its list of “enemies of the internet”. It is estimated that around 70% of people in the country have access to the internet. Like most Middle Eastern countries, content related to online dating or gambling, pornography, LGBT+ issues, and drug use is heavily censored in the UAE. In addition, a wide range of political and religious content is also blocked. All Israeli domains – essentially all websites with the .il suffix – are also blocked in the UAE. VoIP services are illegal in the country, and this includes WhatsApp’s call function. The Emirates Discussion Forum, a reputed online forum for free discussions on all matters relating to the UAE, has been repeatedly censored and disrupted, and has been completely inaccessible within the country for a few years now. Using a VPN or otherwise “tampering with the internet” is illegal in the UAE, and can result in legal action.
Government control over the internet in Vietnam is quite strict, with widespread blocking and monitoring of online content and communication, and also harassment of people for their online activities. According to RSF, Vietnam is second – behind only China – when it comes to harassing and imprisoning internet users. The government says that it only blocks obscene and sexually explicit content; however, many of the sites that are blocked in the country are neither obscene nor sexually explicit, and rather contain political, social, religious discussions that the government considers subversive. Any content that is critical of the government is blocked, including content relating to political opposition, usually by Vietnamese people overseas. Many sites related to human rights are also blocked, and so are many international news websites, such as the BBC. However, the focus seems to be on content that is in Vietnamese – censorship of English-language sites is relatively relaxed, and sometimes the English version of a site will be accessible while its Vietnamese version is blocked. Tools to circumvent the government’s blocking of content are illegal, and are themselves often blocked.
Yemen is the one country on our list that has not been on RSF’s list of “enemies of the internet”, but has rather been described as “under surveillance”. Of course, this doesn’t mean that people have a great deal of freedom online. Infrastructure and internet speeds in the country are relatively poor to begin with, and the government has actively limited bandwidth for websites and services such as Facebook. The government has also stated that it will prosecute people who publish content that “incites hatred” or “harms national interests”, and it forces service providers to block a wide range of content, including pornography, gambling, LGBT+ topics, online dating, and any visuals that could be considered “provocative”.
Religious content is also often blocked, especially content that could be understood to critique Islam or convert Muslims. The ISPs not only block content, but say that they will report users to the authorities if they use the internet in a way that goes against the country’s laws.