Most of us in the advanced Western world have grown used to having unrestricted Internet access on demand. We find it a major inconvenience to lose it for even a short amount of time, so it’s easy to forget that for many people, an unreliable Internet connection is the standard. This stands especially true for countries in the third world whose political systems have always been easier to misuse and exploit. And with no proper and unrestricted Internet infrastructure one can hardly imagine how Internet of Things (IoT) projects can find their way in those countries.
In this article, we take a look at three nations who heavily restrict access to the Internet and what that entails for their citizens and local companies.
Eritrea is often overlooked when people discuss oppressive regimes. It doesn’t have the same name recognition as North Korea, but it is often aptly described as ‘The North Korea of Africa’. The Eritrean government is one of the most repressive in the world, and it has national communications and Internet policies to match.
According to Eritrean law, only the national state broadcaster is permitted to disseminate news among the population – any other organization caught broadcasting or attempting to broadcast news will face serious sanctions; the individuals involved will be at risk of physical harm.
Those who do work for the state broadcaster live in a state of constant fear that the news they choose to share will be deemed inappropriate by the Eritrean authorities. In such cases, the responsible individuals face arbitrary arrest and detention.
Regular Internet users in Eritrea are not free to exchange information with one another or with other communities. Everything they do online is monitored, and anything that displeases the central regime can result in punishment. Eritreans have no access to any of the main sources of online information, such as social media and search engines. In fact, less than 1% of the Eritrean population have Internet connection at all, according to the UN.
North Korea is one of the nations whose constitutions claim to offer freedom of expression, but whose actions quickly put any such notions to bed. North Korean citizens don’t have access to the wider Internet; instead, they are expected to make do with North Korea’s heavily censored intranet called Kwangmyong.
Only the political elite in North Korea has unrestricted access to the Internet. Some educational institutions, such as Pyongyang University, are also able to access a wider range of Internet websites that are necessary to perform their intended functions, educate students, and train staff. Regular North Koreans have no such luxury – they are limited to a small number of state-curated websites.
Faced with heavy restrictions, some North Koreans have taken to using devices smuggled from neighboring China to provide them with access to services that would otherwise be blocked. Since 2013, North Korea has produced its own smartphone, but the capabilities of the device are heavily restricted and it is designed to be centrally monitored.
North Korea prevents its citizens from accessing anything that it might consider ‘damaging’ to the nation. This doesn’t just include political statements, but also content that is perceived as promoting sex or violence among users.
In preparation for elections in 2015, the Ethiopian government started cracking down on dissent, as well as any communications platform that might be used to spread it. This was part of a common tactic used in the country in recent years. If a dictator or authoritarian can shut off Internet access to a large number of those protesting, it is inevitable that they will do so when their government finds itself under threat.
Cutting access to phone networks and restricting access to users’ accounts are just some of the ways that regimes like Ethiopia are able to keep control of their population with minimal force. Limiting the flow of information enables governments to prevent their citizens from even knowing that they have been targeted by countermeasures.
Prior to the last elections in 2015, Ethiopia made a concerted effort to crack down on any independent news and media organizations, strengthening the regime’s stranglehold on the country. Ethiopia has a history of imprisoning and otherwise punishing bloggers and journalists whose work it deems to be damaging to its national security.
Internet in Ethiopia is provided by a single state-approved provider, Ethio Telecom. Ethio Telecom has a habit of routinely suspending access to major new websites and other online services that journalists use.
Most of us take unrestricted Internet access for granted. Unfortunately, there is still a disconcertingly large number of countries that don’t have free access to online content. For people in these nations, there are severe restrictions on the information they can reach, as well as the information they are allowed to share with one another.
In some cases, accessing the wrong website or making a coordinated effort to circumvent any restrictions can lead to serious repercussions. For many it is hard to envisage, but those who live in nations determined to limit their own citizen’s access to the Internet face the very real threat of harm or even death if they are caught disobeying their government. In those particular areas where a real Internet of People is not available yet, the Internet of Things is far from being a subject. At least until the local regimes realize they can use IoT technologies to push the surveillance of their citizens even further. Sometimes, the IoT is not a good idea…