In many countries, activists, journalists, and the public, in general, do not enjoy the same freedom of speech that is taken for granted in western countries such as Great Britain or the US.
While billions of people can use the internet to access up-to-date news around the world, in several countries it is censored and restricted. Communication can be monitored, and millions are under surveillance and living in fear. Recently, one woman was jailed for 34 years for using Twitter in Saudi Arabia.
Certain technologies and tools can promise lifelines to people in these situations but are they dangerous to use, and how easily traceable are they? VPNs and proxies are used to hide IP addresses and reroute or scramble data, but certain regimes are known to outlaw them. So, what use are VPNs in the fight for freedom of speech?
What does a VPN do?
A VPN uses encryption to mask the real IP address of the user. The data that is sent and received from any website is routed through an intermediary. In this case the VPN’s server.
The user can then access restricted content by appearing to be located in another country. Therefore, someone in Sri Lanka could use Facebook or another blocked platform without restrictions.
Because your IP address will be hidden you are afforded a certain amount of anonymity, and extra security. And some governments don’t like this. Turkey restricts the use of VPNs while other countries such as North Korea ban them outright.
It has been estimated that around 30% of internet users regularly access the net via a VPN. During 2020, VPN usage increased by over 27% as lockdowns kept people at home and internet activity surged.
Can VPNs help with anonymity and improve internet access?
A VPN is a crucial tool for increased security online, and most cybersecurity experts would recommend you and everyone else install one. They can help protect sensitive data, and stop your identity from being revealed, but they aren’t infallible.
For instance, a secure VPN for Sri Lanka would let a user safely and anonymously browse social media platforms. But, if any individual posted topics that inflamed the authorities they could potentially discover who you were.
When you use a VPN, your IP will be hidden and the one that is visible to websites you access will belong to the VPN provider. This provider may or may not keep activity logs including your real IP address. A government agency can in theory approach a VPN provider. If the government agency discovered your ISP then they could also be redirected to the VPN provider through them.
Whether this could be a genuine risk depends on which country the VPN provider is registered in, what logs they keep, and whether there is a court order demanding the release of said data.
Can a VPN help with freedom of speech?
Assuming that your VPN provider is one of the more secure and anonymous, and is not based in the country that you are accessing the net from, then it could be a good tool in the fight for freedom of speech.
Activists and journalists regularly use VPNs and proxies to bypass restrictions and let their stories be told. A VPN will potentially slow an internet connection, but for unfettered access, this is a small price to pay for many.
Which countries have the heaviest forms of censorship?
The restrictions that are imposed on inhabitants of different countries vary from social media bans to outright internet blackouts.
Here are some of the countries where using a VPN can help you to keep in touch with the rest of the world, but potentially get you in trouble.
This country has had a tumultuous time in the last fifty years or so, but is now a popular backpacking destination, and has many luxury resorts too. However, the Committee to Protect Journalists added it to their top ten list of most censored countries.
All press, broadcast, and printed media is controlled and owned by the state. They also have powers to censor online content including blogs, and jail offenders.
Freedom of the press in Sri Lanka is supposed to be guaranteed under Article 14(1)(a). However, in reality, the media is suppressed, and Reporters Without Borders listed Sri Lanka as a country under surveillance back in 2011.
Social media is restricted as it is in several other Asian countries, and the UNP had to demand who was ordering internet censorship themselves at one point as censorship spread to the press.
North Korea goes as far as to restrict its inhabitants from even accessing the web, allowing them to only see a limited national intranet service. News is notoriously restricted going into and out of this particular country.
For example, North Korea insisted that after two years of the pandemic they had no infections whatsoever. Clearly, the truth is a luxury in this particular Communist state.
Even tourists are at risk of punishment including jail if they use a VPN in North Korea.
This country may not be listed among the worst regimes in the world, but for journalists and activists, it is a dangerous place to live. Freedom of speech is restricted, and journalists are often targeted.
Amnesty International helped to uncover the Pegasus Project spyware scandal, and this software has been found on the smartphones of teachers and journalists in Mexico. By May of this year, 11 journalists had been murdered in Mexico, just for trying to report the news.
Much like North Korea, China has restrictions that put a stranglehold on the news flow in and out of the country. Despite high-up officials being able to have full access to the internet, its citizens are not so free.
The main news outlets in China are all state-controlled, and foreign news agencies are subject to censorship. Google, the world’s biggest search engine, is also banned in China, the country with the biggest population. 1.43 billion people are not legally allowed to access Google, Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia, Instagram, Whatsapp, or even Spotify. Not surprisingly, the Hong Kong Free Press is also unavailable to the majority of Chinese citizens.
Using a VPN in China may not in itself be a crime, but using it to access a blocked website is. The bad news is that there are not many VPNs that can work reliably in China now.
What are the dangers facing individuals accessing the net in censored countries?
There are many more countries that try to strangle freedom of speech including Iran, Turkmenistan, and Belarus.
There are dangers in each of these countries when going online and spreading the truth about what is happening within their borders. For anyone accessing the net in these countries, an understanding of the risks is necessary. Cybersecurity awareness among youth in Sri Lanka is needed before posts are made on social media that may attract attention.
Generally, though, VPNs are hard to trace. The danger lies more in the confiscation of devices and the discovery of VPN apps, although this in itself is not proof of accessing banned websites. Typically, these regimes will hit anyone visiting a banned website with a fine, and a possible jail sentence. This can even apply to foreigners in some nations.
VPNs are a useful tool in allowing individuals to access restricted content and discover credible news content. They can help with communication into and out of a country where freedom of speech is restricted.
A VPN is also useful in helping to add a certain amount of anonymity, but some care should still be taken as to where and how they are used. All in all, a VPN can be a useful addition to a journalist’s tools when trying to spread the truth.