The worst internet countries on Earth

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The Freedom On The Net 2011: A Global Assessment of internet and Digital Media is a study that highlights threats to internet freedom such as cyber attacks, politically-motivated censorship, and government control over internet infrastructure, but also highlights countries that are pro-internet freedom. For the report’s methodology and more detail check out Freedom House’s full analysis.

Here follows an overview of countries that pose the biggest threat to internet freedom:

Burma

In a country with a population of 48-million, a paltry 40 000 or so users have some form of internet access, most of whom daringly surf the web beneath the watchful eye of a government that infamously sentenced Burmese comedian Zarganar to 35 years in prison in 2008, after posting articles critiquing the country’s regime.

Cuba

When Raul Castro took over from his brother Fidel in 2008, the ban on laptops and mobile phones were finally lifted, but what should have been a renaissance turned into disappointment as Cuba today still remains one of the world’s most repressive environments. Public internet access is vigorously monitored and Cubans pay between $6 and $12 per hour to surf beyond government approved silos.

China

Possibly the most well-known champion of internet censorship in the world, China actively maintains its aptly named “Great Firewall Of China”, blocking access to International news sites, and filtering out results from keywords the government deems sensitive such as “Tiananmen Square”. Bloggers are often jailed for absurd reasons such as “inciting subversion of state power” or backing democracy.

Tunisia

Life online in Tunisia is a soap opera. At the height of the government’s clampdown on free speech online in 2010, an unemployed fruit vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire to protest joblessness. This triggered a country-wide uproar, and calls for political change and greater employment opportunities were voiced through social media channels such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. The government responded by promptly increasing their efforts to crack down on online activists, hack into their social networking and blogging accounts, conduct extensive online surveillance, and disable activists’ online profiles and blogs.

In an address to the nation on January 13th of this year, now exiled President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali – who happens to maintain ownership of the largest ISP in the country – promised to free access to the internet. Access to some popular blocked sites such as YouTube and Daily Motion was restored, but the next day as protests continued President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country and left the fate of the country’s internet access in the hands of a transitional government. The Tunisian internet Agency – who happens to be government owned and profits by renting out bandwidth to service providers – pledged in vague terms to filter only sites that are against decency, contain violent elements, or incite hate.

Vietnam

In 2009, the New York–based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) listed Vietnam among the 10 most repressive countries for bloggers. Bloggers are forbidden from posting under other identities and blogs may contain only personal information and not “press articles, literary works, or other publications banned by the press law;” On top of that ISPs are required to submit biannual reports on the identities and potentially illegal activities of the bloggers they host.

In late 2009, throughout 2010 and the time leading up to the Communist Party Congress in 2011, a series of regime-lead cyber attacks targeted a wide range of websites that were critical of the government.

Saudi Arabia

On December 10 2007, blogger Fouad al-Farhan was imprisoned for four months for posting an article on his blog, discussing the “advantages” and “disadvantages” of being a Muslim. Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s most fierce enemies to freedom of expression online and besides detention and intimidation practices, enforces strict filtering practices and excessive monitoring of internet users to prevent undesirable content. Saudi Arabia was also one of the first Middle Eastern countries to threaten outlawing BlackBerry services for their inherent secure communication.

Ethiopia

Ethiopia has one of the lowest internet and mobile phone penetrations in Africa. At 0.5% of a population of an estimated 85 million, expansion is hindered by poor infrastructure and a government monopoly on telecoms. Amid allegations that China — a key investor and contractor in Ethiopia’s telecoms industry — provided Ethiopia with filtering technology, Ethiopia continues to be part of a minority of African countries that have online filtering systems and laws to restrict freedom of expression. Utilising the internet in campaigns during elections, opposition parties, and independent media have faced strong repression in 2005 and 2010.

Belarus

Nary an independent regulator in sight, the Belarus government maintains a monopoly on the country’s telecoms, performs regulatory actions itself and owns Beltelecom, which charges local ISPs three times more for bandwidth than neighbouring Baltic countries. Enterprising internet users have resorted to forming neighbourhood LANs for sharing connections.

The Belarus government has implemented filtering of popular social media channels at times through the State Center for Information Security. The Center is supervised by the president and was initially a unit of the special security service (KGB).

Bahrain

Bahrain has been in the business of repressing online freedom of expression since 1997 when Dr Mohammed Saeed Al-Sahlawi, a dentist and human rights activist, was first arrested for sending information to an opposition group outside the country. In 2002 the Ministry of Information blocked its first batch of websites containing content that was critical of the government under the press law, and today, over 1 000 websites are blocked in Bahrain. In the period leading to the October 2010 elections the government intensified its crackdown by arresting two bloggers and shutting down several websites and online forums critical of the state authorities.

BlackBerry users in Bahrain face compounded repression as restrictions ban the use of BlackBerry services to disseminate news.

Thailand

The government has gone to great lengths to control the free flow of information and online commentary in Thailand. Over the past two years, thousands of websites have been blocked and several people prosecuted for disseminating information or views online, particularly in the wake of criticisms against the Thai monarchy. In spite of the repression, Thai netizens have shown resolve by becoming by and large politically conscious, favoring greater protections for freedom of expression and being eager to exchange information and views about how Thailand is governed.

Dishonourable mentions

Some countries not mentioned or ranked in the report deserve however to be mentioned. Both Syria and Egypt have recently disconnected its citizens from the outside world during protests and detained online activists.

North Korea restricts online content to only locally controlled news sites to spread pro government propaganda, while Turkmenistan restricts access to only internal and foreign ministry sites and sites of international companies that have a local presence in the country.

Final thought

I’d like to end with a quote from Fred Wilson, the popular VC with investments in companies such as Twitter, Tumblr, Foursquare, Zynga, Etsy, Indeed and Disqus. On predicting the coming internet cultural revolution he says:

The internet is not controlled by anyone or anything. It is a highly distributed global network that has at its core the concepts of free speech and individual liberty. This ethos, which includes but is not limited to hacker culture, is in many ways at odds with big companies, institutions, and governments which seek to control, regulate, and “civilize” the internet.

By shining a spotlight on those with oppressive internet cultures, we are ourselves reminded of the ethos Wilson iterates, and to protect the freedoms we currently enjoy in countries such as South Africa — ranked 7th most free in the world — Estonia, the USA, Germany, Australia, the UK and Italy.

The worst offender of them all is not here, but we have reserved a special article all on its own for this country.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Darryl-Lopes/629461971 Darryl Lopes

    Love the quote, printed it out and put it in quotation marks

  • http://twitter.com/ByPassCensor htbic.org

    To complete the work of Freedom House, in march 2011, Floss Manual has been updating the version of How To Bypass Internet Censorship, a 240 pages free ebook available here : http://htbic.org
    If you know people living in the countries mentioned in the report, please send them a .pdf version of the manual, and send them http://twitter.com/bypasscensor and http://htbic.org/wall

    Thank you,

  • angry native

    Why aren’t France and New Zealand listed? In France and New Zealand citizens have Internet access cut off by private corporations when they are accused of copyright infringement. The UN regards this as a human rights violation.
    Seems to me that Freedom House needs to take a hard look at Western countries.

  • http://twitter.com/martincarstens martin’

    For the methodology Freedom House used, check this out:
    http://freedomhouse.org/images/File/FotN/MethodologyandChecklistofQuestions.pdf

    The report is not exhaustive and claims to be a representative sample: “The countries were chosen to provide a representative sample with regards to geographical diversity and economic development, as well as varying levels of political and media freedom.”

    The methodology also goes on to list certain questions used to produce a rank for each country. Though not spotless, if you go through the question list and manually score the countries you mentioned ,such as NZ and France, you will most like find their scores to be more modest compared to the worst offenders.

    The worst offenders seem to not only share the common threads of content filtering and censorship, but also of intimidation tactics and arrests of citizens that merely voice their opinions online.

    Laws such as the Copyright Amendment Bill in NZ and the “three-strikes” laws of France and the UK warrant cutting people off for infringing copyright. Though this also goes against Article 19 of the UN’s “International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights”, and should be contested, it is arguably less of a human rights violation than torturing and imprisoning people for voicing their opinions online.

    For further reading check out the latest report by the UN on the state of online free speech around the world that also calls attention to long-standing censorship problems in the developed world:

    http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil/docs/17session/A.HRC.17.27_en.pdf

    For more analysis on the UN’s stance on the online copyright laws in the UK, France and NZ see below:

    UN report: “three strikes” Internet laws violate human rights (France, UK)
    http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2011/06/un-free-speech-watchdog-blasts-three-strikes-rules.ars

    UN criticises NZ’s three-strike piracy law
    http://www.nzherald.co.nz/business/news/article.cfm?c_id=3&objectid=10730748

    Internet access a human right – UN report http://www.3news.co.nz/Internet-access-a-human-right—UN-report/tabid/412/articleID/214021/Default.aspx

    For Article 19 check out:

    International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (In particular paragraph 2 and 3)
    http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/ccpr.htm

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  • Michael Franklin

    I have a big issue with Disqus because they are basically thugs for hire against free speech.

    Yes, I am aware that websites are private property and that owners have the right to censor, as they choose, anything pending for publication. But this being recognized, they are not protecting their own spaces. They do not represent their own ideals or morals. Disqus works as a mercenary executioner, slaying the thoughts of millions of people at websites like Fox News and the UK’s Telegraph. 

    It’s a horrible concept and one that takes the story of Big Brother government and stands it on its ear for Big Brother corporate.

    Free speech is a very delicate thing. We tend to treat it as an absolute but, it’s not… and any retreat is a loss that will likely never be regained.

    Disqus needs to be defeated before we are.

  • http://www.gazzmic.com Barry Donegan

    Unfortunately, America isn’t exactly headed in the right direction on this issue either. Passing laws that might cause people to be jailed for posting embedded videos from YouTube is a huge risk to internet freedom. I hope America works hard to maintain our freedom on the internet. It’s important. It’s about the only thing in the economy that still functions.

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