Which Countries Block VPNs And Why in 2024?
Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) have become an essential tool for internet users worldwide who seek greater privacy, security, and access to restricted content. And what better way to do this is by encrypting traffic and disguising your location. VPNs allow bypassing censorship, accessing region-locked content, and avoiding tracking. However, when considering the question, “can vpn be blocked by government?”, some authoritarian countries indeed view these privacy benefits as threats and have imposed legal bans or restrictions on VPN usage.
In this in-depth article, we will analyze 10 countries that currently prohibit or heavily regulate or block VPNs and delve into the complex challenges and nuances surrounding VPN legality. Analysis includes the types of bans, motivations behind them, how governments enforce the laws, punishments for illegal use, and the broader perspective on internet freedom.
Where Exactly Are VPNs Banned or Restricted?
Let’s look closely at the 10 countries that block VPNs illegally or severely limited.
China and its Great Firewall
China operates the most sophisticated and pervasive internet censorship regime globally through its Great Firewall. The government blocks thousands of foreign websites and services, including Google, Facebook, Western news media, and social platforms. And do you know what the most shocking part is? To bypass VPN blocks, users often resort to various methods, but state regulators only allow Chinese approved versions to operate, such as Baidu and Weibo.
Block VPNs can tunnel through the Great Firewall to access the global open internet and for that reason, China has essentially banned unauthorized VPN services. Regulation forced Apple to remove many VPN apps from its Chinese app store in 2017 but however, the legality is technically nuanced.
Only government-approved VPNs are lawful to use in China as they are operated by state-owned telecoms, so privacy is nonexistent. For average people, unapproved VPNs remain the only path to open the internet but at constant risk of being blocked.
Foreign VPNs walk a legal tightrope as small scale operations generally avoid detection for some time and big VPN brands like ExpressVPN and NordVPN have had servers blocked but redeploy new IP addresses to stay partially operational.
However, the Chinese firewall evolves rapidly using deep packet inspection to identify and block VPNs traffic and shutdown connections because unapproved VPNs cannot legally operate onshore.
For Chinese users, penalties for accessing banned websites are severe with fines, job loss and jail time are routinely imposed on dissidents and for perceived threats to Communist Party power.
But wide scale VPN use makes individual prosecution infeasible with harsher examples, like human rights activist Cao Shunli who died in custody, serve as warnings. Despite the barriers, VPNs remain the only way to tunnel through the Great Firewall for open access.
Russia’s Total VPN Ban
Under Vladimir Putin, civil liberties in Russia have steadily eroded as censorship expanded through laws like the infamous Yarovaya Packet in 2016 which also required encryption backdoors. Then in November 2017, Russia passed legislation to block VPNs and internet anonymization services entirely.
The law prohibits distribution of technology that enables access to banned websites per Russia’s internet blacklist as Duma lawmakers spun the VPN ban as vital for preventing extremist recruitment and other security threats. However, its real purpose is control over online communications and access to information.
Russian telecom regulator Roskomnadzor maintains a constantly growing list of blocked sites – now over 2 million URLs including many opposition media because failed state attempts to block the Telegram messenger led to collateral disruption of banking services, retail sites and more.
Providers like NordVPN and ExpressVPN became inaccessible in Russia following the ban as major brands exiting the market due to legal risks leaves primarily shadier services willing to continue.
For users, penalties include administrative fines up to $120 initially and repeat violations may incur criminal charges. But prosecutions remain relatively rare currently and targeting organized providers over individuals. Still, the broad chilling effect achieves Russia’s goals of restricting access to the open internet.
Belarus and Its War on VPN Freedom
Belarus operates a similarly repressive censorship and surveillance apparatus as Russia’s. In 2016, the country passed new media laws that ban & block VPNs, Tor and other anonymization tools because the law allows the regime to block any site or software deemed to distribute illegal content.
Under President Lukashenko for 27 years, state media retained a monopoly over communications and the VPN ban let the government suppress independent journalists and opponents. Users trying to evade censorship face up to three years imprisonment while prosecutions seem rare currently with mainly warnings given out, that may change.
Belarus continues passing draconian laws to tighten its grip over online activity and speech, including mandating real names for internet use as of 2024.
North Korea’s Hermit Kingdom
The North Korean dictatorship needs no introduction as they’re considered the most repressive regime in the world, North Korea tightly controls communications and access to outside information. The Tor anonymity network has confirmed that both itself and VPNs are blocked by North Korean ISPs.
With extremely limited internet, most North Koreans will never get to experience VPNs and online activity is confined to elites and foreign residents, along with the “Kwangmyong” nationwide intranet disconnected from the global web.
However, some evidence shows privileged North Koreans use unblock VPNs and Tor to learn IT skills and understand the external world as the technology trickles in through China while not officially allowed, limited VPN usage may be tolerated quietly among top universities and social classes useful to the regime.
For average citizens though, block VPNs remain impossible to access as the ban is largely academic due to lack of internet penetration. The World Bank estimates under 5% of North Koreans use the internet. However, increasing availability of mobile phones with app capabilities means the block VPNs may practically impact more people in coming years.
Turkmenistan’s Total Control
Turkmenistan maintains one of the most repressive states in Central Asia. Under the eccentric dictatorship of President Berdimuhamedow, the country follows in the footsteps of his predecessor, Niyazov. Most people, when pondering the question “can vpn be blocked by government?”, overlook that Turkmenistan blocks major social media sites, news outlets, video sites, and any platform permitting free speech.
According to former hacktivist group Anonymous, Turkmenistan, block VPNs and internet censorship circumvention tools entirely sometime around 2016 as the Government efforts to eliminate privacy tools coincided with abolishing remaining vestiges of internet cafes where some users bypass filters.
Independent news websites covering Turkmenistan confirmed receiving government demands to divulge reader VPN usage or face blocking. The few unblock VPNs that continue operating do so anonymously at great risk as ordinary citizens have virtually no digital privacy or access to the open internet with extremely harsh punishment for violations. However, Turkmen elites likely enjoy unfettered access.
Uganda Over Social Media Tax Protests
In July 2018, Uganda imposed a daily tax on social media use that went into effect despite protests. To access sites like Facebook, users have to pay a daily fee of 200 Shillings or about 5 US cents. In response, many Ugandans turned to unblock VPNs and proxy tools to tunnel around the tax.
The government struck back in response to the widespread use of VPNs, raising the question, “can vpn be blocked by government?”. They ordered ISPs to block VPNs and other methods of circumventing the social media tax. The Uganda Communications Commission executive director, Godfrey, stated that VPN usage undermines government objectives. However, universally blocking VPNs has proven technically challenging, and users frequently report still accessing VPNs and social media despite sporadic restrictions.
While the social media tax remains deeply unpopular, no specific penalties seem to exist for using unblock VPNs in Uganda yet. Government efforts have focused on telling ISPs to restrict access but their lack of technical capabilities to enforce a full VPN ban limits its effectiveness. But Uganda still threatens punishment for unauthorized VPN use.
Iraq’s Uncertain VPN Laws
Iraq remains beset by internal strife despite the defeat of ISIS’ occupation and with the ongoing violence and instability has caused the Iraqi government to impose stringent internet controls. Temporary social media and communication blackouts are common during turmoil, along with block VPNs and other censorship circumvention tools.
Iraq blocked social media sites for several months during its war against ISIS extremists from 2014-2017 due to the interruptions continued intermittently for security reasons according to Telecoms Director Abdul Razzaq. However, the legality of using VPNs when social platforms are not restricted is uncertain.
On one hand, Iraq lacks any specific law spelling out prohibitions on block VPNs but the government holds power under the constitution to censor communications during times of emergency.
Anecdotal reports suggest unblock VPNs usage in Iraq remains extremely dangerous and simply questioning the narrative during blackouts may result in interrogation or prison time as these risks ensure most citizens self-censor rather than turn to VPNs.
Turkey and the VPN Ban Hammer
Turkey under President Erdogan has seen rapid backsliding on democratic freedoms in recent years as the government has imposed blackouts on social media and websites during times of unrest following the attempted 2016 military coup, Turkey also moved to restrict or block VPNs.
In late 2016, authorities ordered ISPs to block VPN providers and the Crackdown widened through 2018, affecting Tor browser and 10 of the most popular VPN services. Under new laws, using banned VPNs can invoke stiff fines equivalent to $700-4,500.
Turkey continues expanding its internet censorship apparatus and now blocks over 240,000 websites including opposition news portals. WikiLeaks remains banned for exposing state secrets that Erdogan found embarrassing and VPN appeals are rejected despite providers arguing legality. Turkey aims to prevent the circumvention of online blackouts and tighten control over communications.
The UAE’s “Virtual Crimes”
The United Arab Emirates maintains an authoritarian grip over communications while marketing itself as tolerant to foreigners, draconian controls exist over speech, press and internet freedoms for its citizens.
VPN restrictions fall under the UAE’s Federal Legal Decree No. 5, which covers cyber crimes and they use any encryption or “Information Masking” tools that intend to commit crime or evade authorities.
Up to 500,000 AED ($136,000) in fines accompany prison terms for violators, despite claims of not directly banning VPNs, the UAE frames privacy tools as automatically equating to criminal usage.
The abundant expat population enjoys greater digital freedom but local citizens face monitoring by state-owned telecom Etisalat, which has been caught injecting spyware into mobile devices.
For visiting foreigners, block VPN usage to bypass regional streaming restrictions is considered lower risk, though technically illegal and for residents, the punitive laws serve as a stark warning that VPN usage equates to prison time.
Oman – No VPNs Under Cybercrime Law
Among Gulf states, Oman has historically been relatively tolerant and progressive but a recently strengthened cybercrime law takes a hard line on online freedoms. Text within the updated law effectively outlaws use of block VPNs and other encryption tools.
Article 26 bans any computer programs or devices that would “conceal, encrypt or impede monitoring or tracking” online communications and VPN services explicitly meet that definition.
However, full enforcement under the cybercrime law would necessitate banning commonly used HTTPS/SSL encryption as well. Only total isolation from the global internet would comply.
At present, Oman does not proactively block VPN traffic although service providers remain wary of offering access in the country. Few cases exist of penalties applied for personal VPN usage. However, the legal framework provides justification should Oman decide to crackdown on internet privacy tools in the future. For now, the deterrent threat discourages open-block VPNs adoption as pressures on digital liberties grow across Gulf monarchies.
Why Are VPNs Being Banned and Restricted?
The countries above share several motivations for outlawing or constraining VPN access. Let’s analyze the common driving factors behind block VPN.
Authoritarian Control Over Communications
A major theme uniting most VPN restrictive countries involves authoritarian regimes or illiberal democracies seeking control over communications and by filtering information sources and regulating speech, they maintain narratives and suppress dissent. Block VPNs threaten that control by providing open, uncensored internet access.
Outlawing VPNs serves as a strategy to lock in censorship policies and online filters because China’s Great Firewall would see its tight perimeter broken if VPN usage became widespread. While Turkey and Russia similarly fear Block VPNs will jeopardize their censorship and surveillance. However, no technical fixes can wholly replace suppressed demand for open communication.
National Security and Anti-Terrorism Pretexts
Governments often cite national security and preventing terrorism as justifications for VPN bans. Russia’s law specifically called out extremist recruitment as a target. Iraq banned social media temporarily to disrupt ISIS communications and propaganda distribution.
However, the expansive definitions of national security threats in these countries encompass nonviolent dissidents, journalists, human rights groups and other channels of free speech. Keeping citizens contained within state-monitored channels is disguised as protecting public safety.
Maintaining Economic Control and Public Finances
Another motivation stems from monetary factors, Uganda’s unpopular social media tax aimed to raise government revenues but widespread VPN usage threatened income losses by bypassing the fees.
Economic control also factors in China’s ban, as the regime generates billions selling licenses for approved foreign businesses to operate as circumvention threatens that fund flow.
However, short sighted monetary gain from restricting & block VPNs has longer term detrimental impacts with technology businesses and innovation suffering from censorship. Turkey’s web blackouts and blocks on PayPal and Skype, for example, hamper its digital economy.
Global Trend of Increasing Online Repression
Finally, the VPN crackdown parallels a worldwide trend of declining internet freedoms as people spend more of their lives online, authoritarian regimes aim to extend their controls into the digital realm. Once eliminated, privacy and anonymity become incredibly difficult to regain.
Democracies aren’t immune either, their surveillance partnerships like Five Eyes enable sharing of huge amounts of user data among Western nations. The block VPNs highlight the fragility of open internet access and without sufficient public demands for digital rights, the bans could spread.
How is the Legality of VPNs Enforced in Practice?
Formal VPN prohibitions are the first step but repressive regimes use additional technical and legal methods to enforce the laws in practice.
Block VPNs Provider Websites and Shutting Operations
Authoritarian governments seek to make VPN websites inaccessible within their borders as the first line of defense and domain name blocking through DNS tampering and IP bans makes provider sites unreachable.
If Block VPN companies continue operating clandestinely, regimes attempt to shutter in-country business operations entirely. In Russia, measurable VPN search interest and downloads plunged following the ban as major brands pulled out due to legal risks that contributed to chilling effects on usage. However determined users still bypass blocks through other means.
Website Blocking and DNS Filtering
Underlying website blacklists require blockades to have practical impact on ISP filtering, which inspects network packets to match domain names and IPs against government blacklists. However, DNS filtering remains porous because changing DNS settings evades censorship easily.
So censors use deep packet inspection (DPI) to analyze web traffic content, not just addresses as DPI helps identify VPN traffic even when Block VPN sites themselves are blocked. China combines DPI with machine learning continually hunting for traffic patterns that suggest VPN usage.
Registration and Licensing Schemes
Some restrictive regimes have tried requiring VPNs registered with government agencies to operate legally, like a licensing system which grants censors access to VPN user data and oversight over content restrictions. However, no trustworthy block VPN provider would agree to such disclosure demands for users, mandatory licensing ensures VPNs would cease functioning for privacy needs.
Criminalizing Individual VPN Usage
Despite bans, prosecuting every personal VPN user proves impossible in reality as regimes rely on criminalizing VPN usage to create chilling effects on broader adoption. Making examples of dissident activists for illegal & block VPN access intimidates citizens through threats of huge fines or jail time.
However, even harsh penalties fail to completely deter usage as Russia’s initial minor administrative VPN fines clearly didn’t stop determined anti-censorship users.
VPN bans shine a spotlight on the fragile nature of internet freedoms as authoritarian regimes impose further restrictions. To bypass VPN blocks, many people turn to advanced tools and services. Block VPNs provide one of the only remaining paths to open access online. However, motivation for the bans stems less from VPNs themselves, and more so the threat they pose to state control over communications and information.
In analyzing the context and histories behind 10 countries with VPN prohibitions, certain commonalities arise. The bans tend to accompany sweeping censorship laws, tightly regulated state media, and suppression of free expression. To bypass VPN blocks in these countries becomes a crucial need for many. Governments justify these block VPN crackdowns under the premise of national security and preventing extremism. However, the end results always entail stricter control over dissenting voices.
The expanding club of countries outlawing VPNs provides a lesson that internet freedoms cannot be taken for granted. Much like streets and public spaces in the physical world require protections for speech and assembly, the digital world needs guardrails against censorship overreach. Block VPNs, especially those used to bypass VPN blocks, provide that important function where governments fail to uphold digital rights themselves.
As more citizens turn to VPNs in restrictive environments, pressure on regulators ramps up in turn. However, VPNs remain neutral technologies. The responsibility falls upon users to employ them legally and ethically. With careful usage upholding public interest values, VPNs can yet form a pillar for open internet access where it faces the greatest threat of extinction.
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