How Do Different Countries Do Internet Regulation
You can find just about anything on the internet… depending on where in the world you are. In reality, pretty much every country in the world places some kind of limitations on what shows up in results search and what websites you can access. Sometimes that’s to protect people from content that could be distressing or otherwise inappropriate, especially for minors. At other times, it’s to make it easier for governments to control or influence their citizens.
Either way, benign or otherwise, it’s essentially a form of censorship.
Internet regulation works two ways, however. As well as setting rules regarding what individual users can access online, many countries implement legislation that limits how companies can collect, store and use your information, how they contact you and what kind of content they can send you unsolicited. These kinds of rules are generally referred to as internet privacy laws.
Both censorship and privacy laws represent ways of regulating the internet, albeit in very different ways and with very different priorities. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at how different countries around the world choose to apply privacy and censorship rules – and why.
Privacy regulations are aimed at protecting internet users by dictating what websites can do with your data.
Internet Privacy Laws in the US
In the US, different states tend to implement their own rules about internet privacy, but there are also a handful of key laws at the Federal level that you should be aware of:
The Federal Trade Commission Act (FTC)
This regulates commercial practices to prevent them from becoming deceptive or unfair to consumers. It’s not specifically targeted online behavior (it was passed in 1914, after all), but it also applied in the digital arena. Companies that mislead users about how their data will be used or contravene their stated privacy policies can have enforcement actions brought against them.
Computer Fraud & Abuse Act (CFAA)
Prevents unauthorized people or companies from accessing computers to obtain certain information, steal passwords, transmit anything harmful or defraud anyone. This law has been amended a bunch of times as the technology landscape evolves.
Electronic Communications Privacy Act
This one outlaws the unauthorized interception, access, use and disclosure of any communication that takes place electronically. Or by wire, although that’s somewhat less of a concern these days!
Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA)
This legislation requires online service providers and many websites to secure and verify parental consent before they collect, use or disclose personal information from children under the age of 13. These sites also need to display their privacy information and take steps to keep data secure.
Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act (CAN-SPAM)
This regulates all kinds of spam, as in commercial emails you didn’t ask to receive. It also bans the use of misleading subject lines or header information and demands that email marketers include a way to opt-out of emails. Violating these rules can lead to civil and criminal penalties.
These are just some of the many rules that apply to internet privacy in the US. As you can see, few of them were crafted specifically with data management and privacy online in mind, but they have an impact nonetheless.
Internet Privacy Laws in the EU
In the European Union, growing concerns over how websites and social media sites use your information led to the creation of a huge piece of legislation last year, called the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
This aims to help users understand exactly what data is being collected about them and how it’s being used so they can decide whether to consent to it or not. Websites can do longer bury that kind of information deep in a mountain of T&Cs – and they can’t force you to click “yes” to use their sites anymore.
Under the GDPR, companies need to be super-clear about what they’re collecting and why, including personal information such as names, addresses, IP addresses, and location data. If they plan to use or sell it to build up a profile of user behaviors and habits they have to tell you upfront, and you can request access to see exactly what data is stored on you at any time. If anything’s inaccurate or you don’t want it to feed into algorithms that determine what you see, you can change it.
What’s more, GDPR poses much stricter rules about collecting potentially sensitive data regarding things like your political leanings, race, religion or sexual orientation. The idea is to stop underhand forms of discrimination.
For the first time in legislation of this type, GDPR also addresses the “right to be forgotten”. As in, if the personal data is no longer needed for whatever it was initially collected for, you don’t want your data to be processed, you don’t want it used for direct marketing, your data was processed unlawfully, or you simply withdraw your consent for the company to use your data, you can ask them to delete it.
This applies automatically when it comes to children. If, for example, you posted a photo on social media when you were legally a minor and now want to have it taken down, the site in question legally has to oblige. They also need to alert search engines and any other sites that you want these photos removed.
While these laws only apply to countries in the European Union, it’s having a knock-on effect around the world. That’s because global social media networks and internet giants like Facebook and Google tend to find it easier to change their whole system at once than to create different systems for EU users and the rest of the world.
Censorship Around the World
Globally, internet censorship is on the rise. According to Freedom House, 55% of the world’s internet users live in a country where content is blocked or censored for political, social or religious reasons.
Nearly half live in a country where the government has recently increased internet surveillance or blocked social media and messaging platforms, and 42% have seen the internet or mobile networks disconnected for political reasons. All in all, the percentage of the internet population deemed “free” fell from 24% to 20% between 2016 and 2018.
Let’s take a more detailed look at how internet regulation and censorship works in some of the world’s biggest economies.
American internet users enjoy a very high amount of internet freedom. There is practically no content filtering in place and free speech protections are robust. There’s certainly no political censorship in place and hosts of user-generated content, such as YouTube, enjoy strong political protections. This makes them less likely to interfere with what individual users decide to say online.
Responsibilities are split between several different regulatory bodies with specific powers, meaning that no one body can introduce sweeping internet censorship laws. Plus, internet access is available via plenty of different privately-owned internet companies. Neither the government nor a single commercial entity can directly control who can access the internet.
On the flip side, as discussed above, there are some privacy protections in place to limit what data the government can collect on its citizens, although these are much weaker than those in place to protect citizens in, say, the EU. Plus, users are generally free to use encrypted and secure connections like VPNs, giving them a way to access the internet securely and anonymously if they wish.
India is a bit of a mixed bag from an internet regulation point of view. There are several regulatory bodies, but many of them have the ability to directly regulate user access, making it much easier to roll out censorship. Meanwhile, the government has launched an initiative to increase internet access and use because it is a “public good” – but the fact that they are so directly involved in managing this access makes some people nervous.
Moreover, the Indian government does remove content it deems “insulting” and rushes out content filtering without public consultation in response to sensitive events.
From a privacy point of view, Indian citizens have some legal privacy protections, but they also need to get government approval to set up an encrypted or secure internet connection.
Regulatory bodies in the UK are diverse with distinct powers, limiting the influence of any one group over internet regulation. Again, there are lots of different internet providers and telecom infrastructure companies, and almost all residents have internet access.
Broadly speaking, freedom of speech and freedom of the press are enshrined in law, including online. However, sites that contravene defamation laws or copyright laws, are deemed to incite terrorism or contain child pornography are blocked. Some critics of UK regulation argue that these regulations, intended used to protect children and combat extremism, have been used to justify increasing internet surveillance. This even led to Reporters Without Borders citing intelligence and security organization the Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) as an “Enemy of the Internet” in 2014.
At present, UK citizens enjoy GDPR privacy protections, but as with all other legislation, the country adopted as part of its EU membership, no one knows yet what will happen when the country exits the union. Plus, citizens can use VPNs, WhatsApp, and other encrypted or secure connections as they wish.
The internet is accessible to nearly everyone in France via a range of privately-owned companies. As in the UK, multiple regulatory bodies handle specific areas of legislation.
Since France is an EU member, citizens enjoy very strong privacy protections under GPDR. They are also free to use encrypted connections, including VPNs and secure communication apps like WhatsApp if they favor a more secure or anonymous connection.
While France has always scored highly for internet freedom, its ranking by Freedom House took a sharp drop in 2015 following the Charlie Hebdo terror attack in Paris. Historically, filtering was limited, censoring only copyright violations and illegal content like child pornography and websites promoting racial hatred or terrorism. However, after the attack, this censorship was expanded to restrict any content that could be considered to justify or apologize for terrorism. Surveillance and prosecutions were stepped up at the same time.
Germany has adopted a multimedia law that censors certain things on the internet that are already banned offline, including anti-Semitic propaganda, denying the Holocaust, fraudulent business practices and making pornographic content available to minors. Internet providers who fail to block this content can be held responsible for allowing the content to slip through the system.
Germany’s regulatory landscape and internet access are similar to that of France. Again, from a privacy perspective, German citizens also have plenty of legal protections, including GDPR and the right to use secure and encrypted connections like VPNs or apps such as WhatsApp.
In China, internet censorship is intense, while user freedoms and privacy are practically non-existent. Content creation is heavily restricted and freedom of speech is not protected. The government’s stated aim is to create a “harmonious” environment – i.e. one that guides public opinion and limits dissent. Anything considered to be critical of the government, or to support ideas and groups the government disapproves of, is removed at once.
Regulation is managed by centralized government bodies with extensive powers, including control of network infrastructure and the ability to limit access. Google, Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram, Wikipedia, and YouTube are all banned, as are news sites like the New York Times, BBC, The Economist, Reuters, Time and the Wall Street Journal.
The government can collect information on users for regulatory purposes. VPNs are banned, too; you need government approval to set up an encrypted or secure internet connection.
What is Net Neutrality?
Net Neutrality essentially translates to equal access to the internet. Historically, this has been enshrined by law in the US; internet providers and telecoms companies couldn’t discriminate against certain sites by forcing them to load slower than others.
However, this is now under threat thanks to successful campaigns by big comms companies to rescind many of these regulations. These companies spent years suing the FCC for the right not to treat all legal internet traffic the same way, and in a series of rulings from 2015-2017, they finally got their way.
Those in favor of preserving the net neutrality rules say that giving ISPs free rein will eventually lead to two-tier internet access: a fast lane and a slow lane rather than the current data superhighway. Companies will be able to charge more to companies that want their sites to load faster and throttle traffic from those that can’t pay.
This, say net neutrality supporters, will stifle innovation and make it easy for broadband companies to crush emerging competitors. It essentially creates a way for big corporations to bypass antitrust laws and cement monopolies. All of which is would be very bad news for consumers.
We haven’t yet seen any serious slowdowns of traffic, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t on the horizon. Already, telecoms companies like AT&T have used their new freedoms to sneakily create a two-tier service by excluding rival streaming sites from their data plans but including their own.
This is a complex and unusual situation because a lot of people who are vehemently anti-censorship have found themselves, ironically, on the side of regulation. That’s because net neutrality requires government legislation to prevent ISPs and telecoms providers from filtering their internet traffic. Usually, when governments set rules like this, it’s to demand more intervention, not less.
Getting Around the Gatekeepers
As we’ve seen, internet government regulation varies hugely from country to country and the rules can change at short notice, wherever you are in the world. For that reason, it’s a good idea to take steps to protect yourself when you use the internet.
If you really want to protect your privacy, though, consider using a VPN to encrypt your connection. Choosing a top-end one will ensure that you can browse, shop, etc. in perfect anonymity, making it near-impossible for anyone to snoop on you.
It also means you can bypass local censorship laws and view content that’s supposed to be restricted in your area, although bear in mind that you will no doubt get into trouble for doing this if you ever get caught.
All of this means you can use the internet entirely anonymously. No one can spy on what you’re doing, including your ISP, your government, or anyone sharing your WiFi connection. Even better, the company doesn’t keep usage logs and, being based in the British Virgin Islands, legally can’t be compelled to. In other words, the VPN company isn’t keeping any tabs on what you do either, which a lot of other VPNs do to some extent (or have to, under the laws of the country in which they’re based).
Plus it’s extremely fast, reliable and stable, even when you’re streaming HD video. You can also connect to IP addresses in a choice of cities across 94 countries, it works on pretty much any device and it’s effective at unblocking just about any content platform.
Again, bear in mind that even though it does work in many high-censorship countries around the world, ExpressVPN may not be legal in many of them. If you’re simply looking to bolster your privacy in a country like the US or the UK, though, and you’re not doing anything illegal with it, it’s an excellent tool for using the internet without worrying about being monitored or observed.
Conclusions to Internet Regulation
Few people would advocate for an internet that didn’t involve any form of regulation, in the same way that few people advocate for a world in which there are no laws. While government intervention can at times curtail user freedom, it’s also used to keep deeply harmful, rightfully illegal content from being disseminated online. It’s also used to protect users from predatory practices and misuse of their data. What’s more, in the case of net neutrality, some regulation may be the key to maintaining free and open access to all (legal) content on the internet.
In much of the West, users are in the fortunate position of benefitting from the best of both worlds: internet privacy laws help us to take back control of our data while minimal censorship means we can still access pretty much whatever we want, and say (almost) anything we want, on the internet. That said, it’s understandable that many people feel uncomfortable with the idea that someone – be it their ISP, their leaders or the websites they use – are tracking them. For that, we’re also lucky enough to have technology like VPNs to protect our privacy, security, and anonymity online.