Internet access has quickly become a necessary utility for people around the world. Being able to check e-mail or chat with friends is nice, but having the ability to see news reports or research different topics is what keeps us thriving on a daily basis. There’re also considerations like data access for cell phone calls, which is often one of the few methods remote towns can use for contacting the rest of the world.
Not all internet access is created equal, unfortunately. A variety of factors shape how people go online in different countries, the largest of which is usually government and corporate-level interests. Depending on where you live net neutrality isn’t a guarantee. We’ve gathered some of the best and worst countries for internet freedom below so you know where you’re safe and where you need to take extra privacy precautions.
What Is a Free and Open Internet?
The internet started as a free and open system. “Free” in this context means unrestricted, while “open” hints at a lack of barriers or controls. Having both means everyone can log on, look at any website they want and download any file they want, all without third parties shaping their experience.
Lack of Censorship
Censorship is arguably the biggest threat to a free and open internet. Governments in dozens of countries actively interfere with what their citizens can search for online. In most places these blocks are simple pornography filters, but in others it extends to all areas of life. China is the most extreme example of this. If you search for something the Chinese government doesn’t want you reading about, your access is blocked. Foreign news websites and social media are also restricted, forcing citizens to use domestic, government-approved services while cutting off contact to the outside world.
Another important factor in the open internet is data neutrality. It’s far too easy for internet service providers (ISPs) to look at packets of data and change the speed at which they travel depending on their destination. If the ISP has a deal with a video streaming company, for example, it can artificially slow down all video streaming traffic that goes to competing companies, thus encouraging people to use the service that paid for extra attention.
No Fast Lanes or Package Upgrades
Related to the above issues, ISPs shaping traffic based on packet inspection and corporate deals is an immediate loss of online freedom. All information should be processed at the same speed. You also shouldn’t be restricted from visiting certain sites based on arbitrary packages designed by ISPs to bring in more income.
Methods of Reducing Internet Freedom
The chief factor in how open a country’s internet connection is directly relates to governmental control. In general, the more hands-on the government is, the worse online freedoms will become. Below are a few of the more common methods deployed to control web access for citizens around the world.
Blocking and Filtering
An increasing number of governments have set up country-level filters that affect all internet connections entering and leaving their jurisdiction. These mechanisms are generally used to block illegal activities like gambling, child pornography, or blatant copyright infringement. Too often, though, governments extend their reach by targeting a wider range of information, restricting things like hot button political topics, social issues, or human rights. These efforts quickly dive into freedom of speech violations and turn an open internet connection into a closed system.
No matter the level of censorship in a country, there’s always a group of people who fight back. Progressive nations use this opportunity to discuss the issues at hand, but other, more authoritarian ones simply attack the dissidents to silence their voices. There’s no shortage of reports of journalists being arrested, religious activists getting silenced, or cyberattacks against vocal critics of the government in countries that practice these methods.
One of the most frightening methods of crippling internet freedom is to monitor web users and their online activity. This likely takes place as a covert operation in most developed nations, including across the EU and United States. Surveillance infringes upon basic online freedoms and can lead to quiet forms of censorship or even arrests.
Takedown Requests and Liability
If a government or other controlling entity doesn’t like a piece of content, they simply remove it from the internet. No need to block user access if the content doesn’t exist. They can also hold hosting companies liable for the content they display, creating a sort of self-censoring network that’s afraid to step on anyone’s toes for fear of legal recrimination.
Paid Commentators Manipulating Discussions
A less violent but more subversive way of manipulating online freedoms is to control discussions through paid commentators. If you’ve ever talked about a high profile topic on social networks, forums, or article comment sections, you may have encountered one of these paid entities (colloquially known as “trolls” and “shills”). Their only job is to quietly push the discussion in a certain direction, often simply by mirroring what a certain group says in an effort to artificially boost their numbers. This creates the false impression that “everybody thinks that way”, which has a snowball affect on public opinions.
Best Countries for Internet Freedom
The good news is not every government is interested in controlling their people. Open access to the internet has been guaranteed in a number of countries, often extending so far as to ban the above methods of subversive control.
Iceland is consistently ranked as one of the best countries for internet freedom. Over 75% of homes in Iceland have direct access to fiber internet. Censorship is prohibited by the country’s constitution, as well, and the only type of filtering carried out by local ISPs is blocking child pornography, most of which is done on a per-case basis as reported by decency organizations.
Estonia ranks just behind Iceland as one of the best countries for open internet access. The eastern European country has embraced the digital world with over 75% of its citizens connected to the ‘net. Censorship and freedom of expression are both protected by the country’s constitution. The government has a list of 800 sites blocked by local ISPs, most of which are linked to gambling sites expressly forbidden by the country’s laws.
Nearly 90% of Canada’s population is connected to the internet, with Canadians themselves spending more time online than anyone else in the world. Neutrality issues have been debated for years, most of which center around the throttling and preferential packet treatment employed by several of the provinces’ telecoms. In the wake of the net neutrality repeals in its neighbor to the south, the Canadian government reconfirmed its commitment to keeping an open internet for everyone.
Wireless broadband is king in Australia, with reports that 96-99% of its citizens receive slow but functional service around the country, even in rural areas. These efforts are combined with laudable anti-censorship laws designed to prevent children from accessing illegal or pornographic content. The Australian government doesn’t provide explicit freedom of expression protection, but it has shown a general respect for the practice even in extreme situations.
Even with the 2017 repeal of net neutrality laws, citizens in the U.S. enjoy a surprisingly open online experience. Most site blocking efforts are handled on a per-state level, with content like out of country gambling and child pornography frequently on the restricted list. Government level surveillance and censorship are both low in comparison to other areas, as well. All of this could change in the years to come, but as of 2017, the U.S. is in the top ten best countries for internet freedom.
Worst Countries for Internet Freedom
Free and open internet access isn’t a worldwide phenomenon. The countries below have been ranked as the most restrictive places for using the web. They engage in everything from censorship to site blocking, traffic throttling, search result shaping, surveillance, and more. If you live in or visit any of the countries below, use a VPN and be careful what you search for.
A paltry 15% of the Ethiopian population has access to the internet, and those who do are under strict surveillance. Censorship is pervasive within the country’s borders, especially when it comes to political content that conflicts with the government’s ruling class. VoIP connections such as Skype are even blocked, forcing locals to use in-country telecom software that’s both expensive and monitored by the government.
Internet access in Cuba is sparse, unreliable, expensive, and intensely censored. It’s illegal for private homes to have their own connection, forcing citizens to use government-owned internet cafes to go online, which is restricted to simple e-mail services, not worldwide access. Cubans must give their name and address to use these connections, and if they type any words of political dissent, a pop-up appears blocking their access “for state security reasons”. Material intended for online publication must also be approved by the government and is heavily censored beforehand.
China is famous for its Great Firewall, the government-level censorship filter placed on the country’s internet that prevents anyone from searching for “objectionable” content. The government decides what is objectionable, and as you might have guessed, it’s largely related to anti-government sentiments, foreign news sites, social media publications, and other worldwide material. Over 18,000 websites are specifically blocked from the mainland, forcing citizens to use the few VPNs that still work in-country to access anything of value outside of China.
Before the Syrian civil war, internet access in Syria was generally moving towards more freedoms for the people. Afterwards, however, the Syrian Ministry of Communications locked down access with some of the strictest measures in the world, going so far as to shut down the internet entirely for periods of time. Censorship is one of the biggest blockades in Syria. Inside the country you aren’t allowed to access controversial political or social content without suffering harassment or arrests by the local government. VoIP is blocked entirely, and even internet cafes are required to keep records of their users’ browsing habits.
Iran was the second country in the Middle East to join the internet revolution. Nearly 62% of urban households have access to the web, but the connection they enjoy is arguably the most restrictive in the world. Speed throttling is common, as are bandwidth limitations. Any objectionable political content is strictly monitored or removed entirely, and everyone accessing the web is monitored through covert surveillance efforts. All data undergoes deep packet inspection, as well, which breaks through most encryption methods like VPNs.
Regaining Internet Freedom with a VPN
No matter which country you live in, chances are you can use a VPN to restore some of your online access. VPNs help anonymize your connection and break through censorship barriers by using complex encryption algorithms that wrap each packet of data in unbreakable code. These make it difficult for government to see what you’re doing or where you’re located, allowing open access to the internet without fear of being watched or traced.
The downside is that many of the worst countries for internet freedom actively block VPNs from web access entirely. The list of forbidden services chances on a regular basis, too, which means you can never be sure which VPN is ok and which is blocked.