This includes restrictions or bans for torrenting, pornography, social media, and VPNs, and restrictions or heavy censorship of political media


Internet Censorship 2021: A Global Map of Internet Restrictions


Internet Censorship 2021: A Global Map of Internet Restrictions

By PAUL BISCHOFF

 

Nearly 60 percent of the world’s population (4.66 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. This year, we have also added the restriction of messaging/VoIP apps.

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 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. The higher the score, the more censorship.

The worst countries for internet censorship

  1. North Korea and China (11/11) – No map of online censorship would be complete without these two at the top of the list. There isn’t anything either of them doesn’t heavily censor thanks to their iron grip over the entire internet. Users are unable to use western social media, watch porn, or use torrents or VPNs*. And all of the political media published in the country is heavily censored and influenced by the government. Both 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, the app also has backdoors that enable third parties to access messages.
  2. Iran (10/11): Iran blocks VPNs (only government-approved ones are permitted, which renders them almost useless) but doesn’t completely ban torrenting. Pornography is also banned and social media is under increasing restrictions. Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are all blocked with increasing pressures to block other popular social media sites. Many messaging apps are also banned with authorities pushing domestic apps and services as an alternative. Political media is heavily censored.
  3. Belarus, Qatar, Syria, Thailand, Turkmenistan, and the UAE (8/11): Turkmenistan, Belarus, and the UAE all featured in our “worst countries” breakdown in 2020.  But this year they are joined by Qatar, Syria, and Thailand. All of these countries ban pornography, have heavily censored political media, restrict social media (bans have also been seen in Turkmenistan), and restrict the use of VPNs. Thailand saw the biggest increase in censorship, including the introduction of an online porn ban which saw 190 adult websites being taken down. This included Pornhub (which featured as one of the top 20 most visited websites in the country in 2019).

*Even though VPNs are technically blocked, some do still work in China. This is the same with porn websites in many of the aforementioned countries. 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.

The countries that have increased censorship in 2021

If we compare the scores for each country from our 2020 study to our 2021 study, there are three countries that appear to have upped their censorship. One, as we have already seen, is Thailand. The second, Guinea, saw increased political media restrictions suspensions or threats of suspension across several websites during the October 2020 elections as well as social media restrictions during this time (and ahead of the vote in March, too).

The third is perhaps the most surprising, though. Greece received a mere one point in our first study for its restriction of torrenting (which occurs in every country studied). But in our 2021 revisit, it scores 3. This is due to increased actions against torrenting and restrictions on political media. Reporters without Borders suggested there was a decrease in press freedom during 2020. Media outlets that were critical of the government were omitted or given disproportionately small figures from tax rebates. Public TV channels were ordered not to broadcast a video that showed the prime minister disregarding lockdown rules in February 2021. Coverage of the refugee crisis was heavily restricted. And journalists were reported to have been obstructed by police at a commemorative event. A renowned Greek crime journalist, Giorgos Karaivaz, was also assassinated in April 2021.

Online censorship in Europe

  • 18 countries have banned or shut down torrenting sites. A number have also introduced measures but aren’t blocking websites as of yet (Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, 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.”
  • 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).
  • Ukraine restricts online pornography while Belarus and Turkey ban/block the content entirely.
  • Political media is restricted in 12 countries. As we have already seen, Greece joined this list this year as did Hungary and Kosovo.
  • Two countries heavily censor political media – Belarus and Turkey.
  • No European countries block or ban social media but five do restrict it. These are Belarus, Montenegro, Spain, Turkey, and Ukraine.
  • Turkey restricts the use of VPNs while Belarus bans them entirely.
  • Messaging and VoIP apps are unrestricted across Europe.

Online censorship in Asia

  • 12 Asian countries have blocked or banned torrenting sites.
  • The majority of Asian countries have restrictions on online pornography (40 out of the 49 we covered–82 percent) with 27 of these having full bans/blocks.
  • Political media is also heavily restricted and censored in Asia. 43 (88 percent) of the countries we covered have restrictions, with the majority (28) being subject to heavy censorship.
  • A large number (32) of these countries restrict social media platforms in some way. China, Iran, North Korea, and Turkmenistan go one step further and enforce full bans across popular social media platforms.
  • Four countries have full bans on VPN use (China, Iran, Iraq, and North Korea), and a further 11 impose restrictions.
  • Messaging and VoIP app restrictions are also commonplace in Asia with 13 countries implementing some form of limitation. Although Russia did ban Telegram in 2018, this was lifted in June 2020. However, as the government continues to look for ways to restrict websites and apps from outside the country, this could change at any time.

 

(PAUL BISCHOFF- TECH WRITER, PRIVACY ADVOCATE AND VPN EXPERT)

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