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The worst internet countries on Earth

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:

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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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