Internet Laws: What You Can and Can’t Do Online Around the World
Some twenty years ago, internet access wasn’t seen as a utility like water or power supply. Using internet meant sacrificing your landline for as long as you browse someone’s homepages written in HTML or hang around in forums just to kill some time. Yes, some people are actually that old.
Lots of things have changed since then. Landlines are becoming obsolete, broadband connection brought us video streaming, and people get fired on Twitter. While that’s the main difference between old and contemporary internet for the Westerners, that’s not the case for billions of people in other parts of the world where the advent of the internet has driven local authorities to see it as an area where they should be actively involved. They see the lack of supervision over people’s communications as a threat to the order existing in their respective countries.
Some of those things might seem downright ridiculous to a person from the U.S. or the E.U. Nevertheless, if you happen to live in a country with virtually no internet laws and one day find yourself across the digital iron curtain, in some country where such laws exist and are ruthlessly enforced, this notion won’t come to rescue you.
Still, if you go to the UAE or South Korea, you should be aware of things that you probably got already used to doing, but now you suddenly can’t.
Internet Laws Around the World
Afghanistan. It could have been a pretty long paragraph saying that only five million people have internet access, and how many topics are banned there, and that you cannot even access Facebook or Google Mail because they are against local traditions. But instead, it’s enough to say that back in 2008, student Sayed Pervez Kambaksh was sentenced to death for downloading and giving out a paper on women’s rights. He was later granted amnesty and fled the country.
Belarus. In Belarus, which is situated right in the geographical center of Europe, internet access is heavily controlled by Beltelecom, which is a government-run entity that manages the local internet gateway. The country has a very complex “information security policy” in place, and the matter of online behavior is seen there as a matter of national security. Most local users are reported to censor themselves in order to avoid problems with the law enforcement. Certain websites are blocked there, yet you have to get a special authorization to obtain their list. If someone visits a website from that list, they risk getting fined for the equivalent of $125.
China. Probably the most obvious example of a government controlling the internet, China isn’t by far the most restrictive, as we have already seen. Still, there are about 60 regulations specifically covering the internet. The notorious “great firewall of China” shields the country from anything the government sees as unwanted. Those who don’t want to play by the rules risk imprisonment and, rumor has it, torturing and forced labor.
Cuba seems to be the archenemy of the internet. For instance, there you cannot access internet from the privacy of your own home. The only way you can go online is via government-controlled access points, like internet cafes, where everything you do, receive, or send is recorded. And if anything of that involves something counter-revolutionary, then you’d wish you did it at home.
India. Reporters Without Borders stated back in 2o12:
“Since the Mumbai bombings of 2008, the Indian authorities have stepped up Internet surveillance and pressure on technical service providers, while publicly rejecting accusations of censorship. The national security policy of the world’s biggest democracy is undermining freedom of expression and the protection of Internet users’ personal data.”
In 2014, the government attempted to ban pornography, however, a week later the ban was lifted under immense social pressure. Still, the next year nearly a thousand of such websites was blocked. There were rumors that watching porn in India was made a crime, however, it seems to cover only the public demonstration of such materials.
Iran. Facebook and YouTube are banned there for being “immoral,” which, in fairness, isn’t completely untrue. Limitations on internet speed are also in place. Recently, the government moved to ban Signal and Telegram, instant messaging services.
The Koreas. Back in the day, South Korea used to have a Real Name System in place, which obliged everyone to state their actual name in order to post an entry or a comment, otherwise whatever they wrote got deleted. This measure caused protest as it obviously violated the right for privacy, and eventually was rolled back. Still, the country has a censorship system in place that cuts access to any website the government deems inappropriate for some reason.
This, of course, has nothing on what happens in North Korea. Everyone outside the land of Juche actually has a very little idea of what’s going on there, but still we know something. For instance, the government is the sole internet service provider there, it decides what to show and what to conceal, and services as much as 4% of the country’s entire population.
Russia. In Russia, there is a government organization called Roscomnadzor, which supervises all media, internet included. It has the authority to ban any website it deems extremist or subversive without obtaining a court order. Its most recent adventures include the attempt to ban Telegram, an instant messaging service, due to their refusal to provide encryption keys to the authorities. Once the ban came into force, Roscomnadzor has started what is called ‘carpet banning’ which covered the bans on Amazon and Google networks with millions of IP addresses. This, in turn, led to disruptions in operation of local chain store Dixi and payment processor Qiwi. Telegram, nevertheless, remained operational.
The government of Saudi Arabia, for instance, has banned over 400 hundred websites that somehow cover political or religious matters that don’t fall in line with the beliefs of the local monarchy. In Syria, things are a bit more straightforward: if you put national unity in danger, you’re going to get arrested, and everyone online has to be identified.
Something similar to North Korean approach actually happens in Turkmenistan, where you can only access internet via the government-controlled ISP that reads your emails and doesn’t let you see much of the outside world’s websites. So, you may think twice before planning your vacation in Turkmenistan. It has some upsides, though. They say, the gold statues of the country’s first president look breathtakingly beautiful in the sunset.
Thailand. Before the most recent coup d’état back in 2014, Thailand mostly focused on banning the good old adversary of moral people, pornography. Being a monarchy, Thailand also bans lèse majesté (i.e. somehow defaming, insulting, or threatening the royalty), which is punishable with 3 to 15 years in prison. After the National Council for Peace and Order came to power, further restrictions on internet content were put in place, which includes serious political censorship.
The U.A.E. If you come to the United Arab Emirates and one night decide to make the evening nicer by watching some porn online or chatting with a friend via Skype, you’ll find yourself really disappointed. The country has banned chat rooms, porn websites, and Skype alongside with almost any other VoIP services. Finally, if you are caught saying nasty things about Islam or doing anything contrary to established family values, you won’t be leaving the U.A.E. anytime soon.
In Vietnam, websites dedicated to criticizing the local government and promoting human rights are blocked, while Google and Microsoft have to provide the authorities with all information on their users.
When someone travels to one of those countries, they probably don’t think they’ll be missing the chance to watch a stupid fails compilation on YouTube. So, the first thing they might do when they discover local authorities don’t think that video is any good and isn’t worth watching is to use a VPN in order to circumvent the ban.
But, surprise, the governments have also thought about it. While VPNs are legal in most countries, some of them have certain restrictions in this regard while others have banned VPNs altogether. There are only 10 countries in the world that do that, and you could try to guess them but, frankly, that would be like taking pot shots.
Belarus doesn’t have any sentiments towards VPNs. Using a VPN will entail fines, so there’s not much incentive for Belarusian nationals to access one of many websites blocked in their country. Similarly, the government doesn’t really like it when someone uses Tor, again, for the sake of national security.
In China, the free use of VPNs is banned because, according to local laws, they perform unlawful cross-border activities. In case to make such activities legal, a company will have to get a special line which is provided by the government. VPN providers have to be approved by the government, and individuals that use their services “illegally” can be fined for up to $2,200.
In Iran, you, too, can only legally use those VPN services that had been previously approved by the authorities, even though that probably gives them an opportunity to access your private data. If you use some other VPN, you risk spending 91 to 365 days in jail. Still, arrests aren’t that common as this law mostly applies to the opposition members and not those who want to visit their Facebook page.
There are certain countries that have banned VPNs altogether. One of them is Iraq, which probably has the fair cause to do that: preventing ISIS from manipulating social networks. For the same reason, social networks are also banned, even though government institutions actually use VPN and social media alike, thus ignoring their own regulations.
As far as we know, locals in North Korea aren’t even aware of the existence of VPNs, but as a tourist you probably can use VPN to access the websites you like. What is more interesting, North Korea’s diplomats located around the world are officially banned to use the internet altogether. Sorry, guys, no links. It’s North Korea, what did you expect?
Oman offers government-approved VPNs as well, of course keeping all the logs. If you’re a company, then you have to apply for a governmental permission to use it. In all other cases, you’ll have to pay around $1,300 for using an unauthorized VPN service if you’re a person, and twice as much if you’re a company.
Russia has imposed certain controls over VPNs to “prevent the spreading of extremist materials.” Still, those who wish to use VPN services have to choose between those that had been approved by the Russian government, otherwise they will have to pay around $5,000 if they’re an individual, and $12,000 if they’re a company. That’s, of course, is if they’re caught.
Turkey is a bit harsher and at the same time more honest: it restricts VPN use so that it won’t be used to bypass government censorship. Using it may cause certain problems but some people do it nonetheless.
Turkmenistan banned VPN completely to enforce its censorship on foreign media outlets. Any attempts to use proxy servers or VPN are easily detectable there because the government is in fact the only internet service provider there, as was mentioned above. If someone is caught using any of those, they’ll be called to the Ministry of National Security for so-called “preventive conversations.”
The U.A.E. allows companies to use VPN as much as they like, however, it bans individuals from using it. Those who do it nonetheless face imprisonment or a gargantuan fine of up to $400,000. Specifically, the law stipulates that anyone who uses a fake IP to commit a crime or conceal their identity is subject to those penalties. The reason for that is that the extensive use of VoIP services by the locals left local telecom companies high and dry.
While most of those things may seem somewhere between ridiculous and unfair to the citizens of the free world, restrictions on the internet are the harsh reality for the lion’s share of our planet’s population.
Anyone visiting those countries should always keep in mind that as long as he or she are there, they are subject to the same internet laws as everybody else, and no matter how ridiculous, weird, or unfair those regulations may seem to them, they will have to keep in line with those laws in order to avoid trouble. When in Rome, do as the Romans do.
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