We live online. And that comes with a few expectations.
You expect to access whatever you want, whenever you want.
That one actor’s name who played Steve Urkel? You should know it in just a few seconds.
(It’s Jaleel, btw.)
And you expect to be able to do all this with at least a tiny bit of privacy so people won’t judge your bad taste in 90s sitcoms.
For most people in most places, that’s no problem. You can browse, research, stream, and download completely unencumbered.
There are 196 countries that completely support VPNs (despite what their aggressive governments are doing to circumvent them.)
However, that’s not the case with the ten countries listed below. Each takes an opposing view of online privacy. And each is doing everything they can to prevent you from anonymously Googling the entire Family Matters cast. (Monsters, right?)
Here are why some countries believe VPNs should be banned, along with the ten authoritarian regimes leading the charge to destroy your right to privacy.
Why Do Countries Ban VPNs?
Social media was the spark that lit the Arab Spring protests between 2010 and 2012.
This massive series of events saw oppressed young people rise up to challenge (and in some cases, overthrow) the governments of Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain.
All starting with a few tweets and online posts.
Shortly after these skirmishes, other Middle East countries started tightening the screws, banning VPN services outright in most cases.
Virtual Private Networks use a tunneling protocol, combined with bank-grade encryption, to create a lock-down on your internet activity, masking it from not just hackers, but even your ISP and government, too.
The best VPNs won’t log your data either, meaning that no court order could force them to produce exactly what their users were doing while connected.
To understand why these ten nations below ban VPNs, you first have to understand why they are considered such a threat.
The communist Chinese government is an internet censorship aficionado.
We’re talking expert-level connoisseur. Like, your insufferable wine-snob friend who can’t shut up about the tannins in their Cabernet. Like, Epic-level Dungeons and Dragons. (Had to Google that reference.)
In March of 2018, China raised its already high stakes by expanding censorship efforts to ban the use of VPNs that were not approved by the government.
What, exactly, does that mean?
Some VPNs are allowed to operate within China. However, these VPN providers must agree to a number of terms that the Chinese government requires.
One such provision is the logging of user activity, which flies directly in the face of what a VPN is supposed to do in the first place. If your activity is being monitored and stored by the VPN company, that’s no different than falling under the eyes of your ISP or the Chinese government.
Just before they enacted the ban into law, Zhang Feng, the Chief Engineer of China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, said, “We want to regulate VPNs which unlawfully conduct cross-border operational activities. Any foreign companies that want to set up a cross-border operation for private use will need to set up a dedicated line for that purpose. They will be able to lease such a line or network legally from the telecommunications import and export bureau.”
Essentially, you know, giving the government a backdoor to see exactly what VPN users are doing.
This action is in keeping with China’s long history of stifling the internet use of its 1.4 billion citizens.
The Great Firewall of China is a system that cuts off access to a number of blacklisted websites and limits the speed of cross-border traffic. Some of the sites blocked by The Great Firewall include:
- The New York Times
China consistently focuses on stifling dissenting voices and promoting loyalty to the regime. VPNs represent an all-too-convenient opportunity for dissenters to get around that.
One plan to promote government loyalty is China’s new social credit rating system. They are applying this to every citizen between now and 2020. The government has stated that this is meant to gauge the “trustworthiness” of every Chinese citizen. A poor score could keep you from purchasing an airline ticket, accessing certain websites, and organizing public events.
Talk about a surveillance state.
Many see this as yet another way the Chinese government seeks to consolidate its power over citizens. By incentivizing a person’s trustworthiness, the government has effectively guaranteed mandatory loyalty (otherwise, those fundamental rights start getting stripped away).
VPNs were (emphasis on past tense) an effective way to circumvent government oversight and The Great Firewall for a long time. However, this new law changes that and imposes a penalty of up to $2,000 for unauthorized use, all but guaranteeing truly anonymous VPNs go bye-bye.
If banning VPNs was like Rocky (stick with me here for a second), China would be Apollo Creed while Russia would be like Rocky. See the irony?
No matter how many times Apollo ups the ante, Rocky just can’t be knocked down, matching him toe-to-toe in a battle of wills.
Apollo’s days are numbered, and Rocky will eventually come out on top as the World’s Undisputed Champion (of Censorship).
Bad metaphors aside, Russia’s exploits are terrifyingly effective.
Any cybersecurity conversation inevitably leads to a mention of Russia. From suspected hacking of the US presidential election of 2016 to accounts of spreading misinformation through social media sites, Russia has been alleged to be Ground Zero to many cyber threats circulating the globe.
That’s why it’s somewhat odd that Vladimir Putin’s government is so strict on its own citizens’ internet use.
Russian ISPs play a key role in enforcing the ban, as they are ordered to block access to websites that offer VPNs and other proxy services.
Approved VPN companies receive a list of banned websites as identified by the Russian government. They are then required to act “within the legal framework.”
Russia created an internet blacklist in 2012 (following the Arab Spring) to block access to websites that promoted certain topics. Among these are drug abuse, suicide, and child pornography. While these intentions are seemingly noble on the surface, the US-based advocacy group Freedom House reports that the Russian government routinely uses it to silence platforms that criticize Putin’s regime.
Obviously, given their harsh censorship crackdown, the Russian government wants to limit the ability of its people to access blocked content through the use of a VPN. As such, they have some of the most specific penalties imposed on violators.
Any citizen caught using an unauthorized VPN service is subject to a fine of up to $5,100. VPN providers that are found to be in violation of Russian law can be fined up to $12,000. Enforcing this law has proved easier said than done, as the censor administration has no real ability to track unauthorized usage unless they’re spying directly on an individual.
The Islamic Republic of Iran is a relative newcomer to the censorship game, blocking VPNs since only 2013. They allow the use of government-approved VPNs and impose harsh penalties on offenders.
It has been reported that the use of these government-sanctioned VPNs has led to the surveillance of private user data, thus defeating the entire point of having a VPN in the first place.
Iran blocked free access to VPNs just before their 2013 elections, citing a desire to “prosecute users who are violating state laws,” and “take offenders to national courts under the supervision of judiciary service.”
Iran has a history of internet oppression, blocking over half of the world’s top 500 websites. These include Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
During the Arab Spring protests, the government would repeatedly throttle the internet speed of its citizens, hoping to frustrate them away from using the service.
Recently, the Iranian government blocked a number of social apps and cut off internet access to specific areas during a series of anti-government protests throughout 2017 and 2018.
Anyone caught using a VPN to get around this country’s harsh censorship laws could face up to a year in prison.
4. United Arab Emirates
This absolute monarchy blocked VPN use in 2012, during the Arab Spring. This ban is only in place for private individuals, however. Corporate entities and banks may continue to use VPNs with no restrictions (cause, you know, 💰💰💰).
They cite telecommunications violations as the main reason for the ban. UAE citizens were using VPNs to access Voice Over IP services like Skype, thus cutting out the major telecom companies.
They have blocked most VoIP services in the UAE, which proved problematic for the overwhelming majority of its inhabitants.
More than 85% of the people living in the UAE are not locals. They’re mostly expatriates who relied on VoIP services to communicate with family and business contacts in their country of origin.
Two state-sanctioned VoIP services were made available, but they (unsurprisingly) come at a high price point.
The UAE also blocks any Israeli domain sites, which is another reason that they don’t want their populace using a VPN.
Their anti-VPN law reads:
Whoever uses a fraudulent computer network protocol address (IP address) by using a false address or a third-party address by any other means for the purpose of committing a crime or preventing its discovery, shall be punished by temporary imprisonment and a fine of no less than Dhs 500,000 and not exceeding Dhs 2,000,000, or either of these two penalties.
In USD, those fines range from $136,130 to $544,521. Yikes.
The Sultanate of Oman blocks all VPNs except for those specifically sanctioned by the government, originally starting in 2010.
This law applies only to institutions. Private, personal use of a VPN is illegal. Any business entity can appeal to the government for VPN access, but it is at the discretion of the governing body whether or not they grant it.
Oman’s Telecom Regulation Authority were the authors of this law. They sought to stop Oman’s citizens from bypassing censorship efforts and utilizing VoIP services. But this edict does not stop at Oman’s locals. Visiting authorities and members of the press also fall under its jurisdiction.
Oman’s internet censorship efforts are very broad. They deny their people access to any pornographic content, anything depicting LGBTQ, anything concerning illegal drugs, and all content that is critical of the Islamic faith.
Their laws restrict free online expression and heavily encourage self-censorship.
Anyone caught attempting to work around these strict laws is subject to a fine of over $1,000.
The Republic of Turkey has been restricting access to VPNs and the TOR network since 2016.
The government typically uses security-related justifications to issue crackdowns on internet services like VPNs and social media websites. In the case of VPNs, the country stated that it was restricting them in an effort to “fight terrorism.”
It should be noted that Turkey’s attempts at fighting terrorism have led to the arrest and imprisonment of many protestors and journalists over the years.
Turkey blocked many specific VPNs. Other VPNs still have some success working within Turkey’s borders, but it is risky. CyberGhost VPN works on mobile, but desktop apps can be hit or miss.
There is a WatchDog group within Turkey called Turkey Blocks which reports and maps censorship activities undertaken by the Turkish government in real time. According to them, the government has routinely blocked access to social media sites when they feature information on them that they don’t like.
That reportedly includes all Manchester United games due to the government’s stance that watching them play is about as exciting as watching paint dry. (*Citation pending.)
Turkey also blocked access to some Western sites such as YouTube and Wikipedia, as well as file sharing apps like Dropbox and Google Drive.
The Republic of Iraq has issued a full ban on all VPNs since 2014. No individual or corporate entity may use them with zero exceptions.
The democratically-elected Iraqi government says that it bans the use of Virtual Private Networks to help fight back against the Islamic State terrorist organization. ISIS agents routinely use social media to manipulate the public with falsified propaganda. (Sound familiar?)
So, this government’s hesitation is somewhat justified. When terror threats are present, the Iraqi government occasionally blocks out internet access to certain parts of the country.
But sometimes, government officials take it too far, like a case in 2016 where the country temporarily shut down the entire internet to prevent sixth-grade students from cheating on exams. Yes, that happened.
This move was decried by many, including the United Nations who stressed the continued need for the “promotion, protection, and enjoyment of human rights on the internet.”
While ISIS is a continuous threat to the people of Iraq, it’s a shame that the government feels that it has to take away services like VPNs and internet features for the whole country in order to combat them.
Turkmenistan has fully banned VPN use since 2015, which is interesting considering I didn’t even know it existed before 2018.
The government took anonymous browsing away from its citizens to prevent the spread of foreign media.
Turkmenistan’s internet activity is overseen by only one government-controlled ISP, nicknamed Turkmenet. (Seems fitting.)
This is a heavily-censored service featuring strict filtering of viewpoints that oppose the Turkmen government. YouTube, for instance, has been blocked since 2009 to prevent the Turkmen people from blogging or getting information to the outside world. They also keep popular social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter out of the hands of the Turkmen people.
The internet is barely ten years old in Turkmenistan. Individual access did not come to the country until 2008. The government keeps the rates extraordinarily high so that they restrict ‘commoners’ to browsing the web in internet cafes, which they can monitor more easily. A monthly internet subscription within Turkmenistan costs $213.16. The average monthly salary within the country is only $200.
We should also note that this cost covers speeds of 64 Kbits per second. So no Netflix & chill happening in Turkmenistan.
Anyone caught trying to use a VPN in Turkmenistan is fined an unnamed amount and summoned before the Ministry of National Security to have a “preventative conversation.” This is nothing more than an intimidation tactic used to frighten citizens into adherence to these strict laws.
Belarus has been blocking VPN use entirely since 2015. The country blocks most foreign websites along with access to VPNs and the TOR network.
This ban came as a part of a procedure outlined by the Belarusian president to improve telecommunications throughout the country. One of the guidelines outlined within was the banning of all anonymity software.
What’s interesting to note is that the Belarusian constitution actually outlaws censorship. 🤷
However, that appears to be more for show, since they don’t actually practice it.
Belarus has many laws that punish expressions of free speech. For example, criticizing the Belarusian government while abroad carries a sentence of two years in prison. Meanwhile, insulting the Belarusian president can land a citizen in prison for five years!
Using a VPN is not as egregious of an offense as insulting the president, however. Anyone caught using such a service against the government’s wishes will have to pay an unnamed fine.
10. North Korea
It is difficult to get any kind of concrete facts about the People’s Republic of North Korea and how it governs internet activity. What is known for sure is that they have completely outlawed the use of Virtual Private Networks within the nation.
One interesting tidbit about the country’s VPN ban is that it only applies to locals. Tourists are allowed to use the internet freely within North Korea, and can even legally use a VPN service.
A much different reality is in place for the citizens of this closed-off nation, as North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un allows no foreign media to fall into the hands of the public.
Internet use in North Korea is not common, and most North Koreans have no actual concept of the internet. They mostly grant use of the internet to government officials, scientists, and elite students.
Even for those North Koreans who can use the internet, it is heavily monitored and restricted. They block websites such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and all South Korean news sites. That’s no surprise, as North Korea is notorious for controlling all media consumed by the public. All television, radio, and print materials are controlled by the state, with a heavy bias toward the glorification of North Korea and Kim Jong-un.
In 2006, the media group Reporters Without Borders declared North Korea the world’s worst internet black hole. This was during the reign of Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il.
It’s impossible to know exactly what would happen to a North Korean caught using a VPN. Reports vary, ranging from a civil fine to execution.
Fighting for Internet Freedom
A world without the internet is no world we want to be a part of.
Unfortunately, that unthinkable scenario is the reality for the people in these ten countries.
Virtual Private Network services, like CyberGhost VPN, exist to preserve our internet freedom. They mask our online activities from authoritarian regimes whose only goal is to tighten control over their people to keep themselves in power.
And most importantly, they exist to create a safe harbor for citizens looking to escape, speak out, or reveal the daily atrocities they experience to the rest of the world.