VPN Global Demand: Why These Countries Search for VPNs the Most

Around the world, VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) are gaining traction. By masking users’ IP addresses, VPNs provide an extra layer of privacy and anonymity online: cloaking user traffic from the eyes of cookies, trackers, and search engine databases.

In the Western world, many people use VPNs for recreational reasons – whether that’s unlocking geo-restricted content while traveling (a motivating factor for 26% of users), or reducing the effects of throttling to enjoy faster internet speeds.

In other countries, however, VPNs aren’t a matter of enjoyment or entertainment: they’re a matter of life and death. In these jurisdictions, the internet freedoms the Western world takes for granted are curtailed or non-existent. In these places, the internet has been manipulated and weaponized by authoritarian, totalitarian governments; where instead of enabling access to information, rulers seek only its control.

It’s these countries, we hypothesized, where online searches for VPNs will be highest – but we had to be sure.

Below, we’re unpacking the top 10 countries where VPNs were searched for most in 2023. We’ll then do a deep dive into the political and historical factors that have influenced VPNs’ world-leading popularity there – and what happened in 2023 that saw searches spike.

Let’s take a look at VPN’s key usage statistics in 2023 to look at who’s using them, how they’re using them, and in what kind of numbers – before we dive deeper into why.

VPN Usage in 2023: Key Insights

What patterns did VPN usage take in 2023? Let’s take a whistle-stop tour of the data:

  • 70% of VPN users in June 2023 used them daily or almost daily, while – for those using VPNs for work – this figure rose to 77% (Zscaler, 2023).
  • 51% of VPN users do so to safeguard their privacy on public wifi networks, while 44% do so to protect their anonymity while they browse. 37% use VPNs for secure communication, and 20% do so to hide their activity from authorities (GWI, 2020).
  • People aged between 45 and 60 were the most likely age-based demographic to use VPNs (28% of respondents) (Security, 2023).
  • In 2023, the dominant VPN among companies was Cisco AnyConnect, which hogged 28.64% of the market share (Datanyze, 2023).
  • By country, Senegal saw the biggest increase in VPN demand in 2023, with a spike of more than a staggering 60,000%. Other countries that saw notable upticks were Ethiopia (3,651%), Pakistan (1,329%), Italy (678%), Brazil (192%), Turkey (99%), and Iraq (72%) (Top10VPN).

Want more of the latest VPN data? Explore our guide to VPN statistics for Techopedia’s in-depth rundown of all the VPN numbers you need to know about in 2024.

VPN Worldwide Demand Insights – Infographic

VPN worldwide demand statistics infographic - Techopedia

 

The Countries That Searched for VPNs Most in 2023

To find out which countries’ residents searched for VPNs most in 2023, we turned to Google Trends, which generated a value to rank each of the top 74 VPN-using nations.

This number, calculated on a scale of 0 to 100, indicates how popular the search term ‘VPN’ was in each country for the year 2023. Here’s a quick guide to understanding it:

  • 100 is the country where searches for VPNs were the most popular, as a fraction of that place’s total searches.
  • 50 is a location where searches for VPNs were half as popular as the country with a 100 score.

In this data, a higher value means a higher proportion of all queries – not a higher absolute query count. So, a small country where 80% of searches are for VPNs will score twice that of a large country where just 40% of those queries are for VPNs.

We’ve also displayed each country’s placing in the same data from 2022 – and its year-on-year percentage fluctuation – to see the extent to which VPN searches there increased or decreased. (Or, like a couple of countries, whether 2023 VPN traffic spikes meant they were making their debut.) Our table below also draws on data from Freedom House’s Freedom of the Net Report 2023, which rates 70 countries on a scale of 0 to 100 based on how free their internet is (0 being the worst; 100 being the best).

With that cleared up, let’s dive straight into the findings.

According to Google Trend data, the top 10 countries in which the term ‘VPN’ was most searched for throughout the whole of 2023 were:

2022 rankings (/100) 2023 rankings (/100) YoY increase (%) Level of internet freedom (/100) VPN use status
1. Turkmenistan 100 100 No change N/A Illegal
2. Ethiopia 99 New 26 Legal
3. Iran 40 77 +93% 11 Restricted (legislation pending)
4. Myanmar 51 65 +27% 10 Restricted (legislation pending)
5. China 28 54 +93% 9 Restricted, blocked
6. Syria 25 52 +108% N/A Legal, intermittent blockages
7. Afghanistan 16 41 +156% N/A Legal
8. St Helena 25 40 +60% N/A Legal
9. Senegal 35 New N/A Legal
10. Uganda 16 33 +106% 51 Legal

Looking at this list, several themes jump out.

The first is geographical. Turkmenistan, Iran, and Afghanistan all share a border with each other, and a continent with Myanmar, Syria, and China. Elsewhere, Senegal, Uganda, and Ethiopia all belong to Africa. Perhaps the only obvious outlier is St Helena: a small, remote, tropical island located in an expanse of ocean around 4,000 km east of Rio de Janeiro.

The second and more persuasive theme, however, is that (again, with the exception of St Helena), all these countries impose – or at least have imposed – strict limitations on aspects of their citizens’ human rights, personal freedoms, and capacity for unencumbered speech and expression. This is apparent in these countries’ poor scores in the realm of internet freedom: particularly China (9/100), Myanmar (10/100), and Iran (11/100).

Spearheaded by governments from the most extreme poles of the political spectrum – from China’s communism, to Turkmenistan’s totalitarianism, to the lawlessness of Afghanistan under Taliban rule – many of these countries seem obsessed only with obtaining and retaining power.

Internet censorship, in particular, is rife as a way of stifling opposition viewpoints or masking government-perpetrated atrocities – such as China’s persecution of the Uighur people, Uganda’s stance on LGBT rights, or Iran’s brutal repression of dissidents and minorities.

This manifests itself in different ways: from Senegal’s intermittent blacklisting of Western websites to the complete blackout of China’s Great (Fire) Wall. In some of the countries we’ve profiled here, VPNs are legal; in others, they’re restricted, or subject to pending legislation. And, in one country on our list, VPNs have been outlawed altogether.

In other countries, the world-leading rates of VPN-related searches owed a lot to single events. In Senegal, for instance, the 2023 arrest of the opposition leader for criminal conspiracy – a reason manufactured by the existing government, and which sparked violent protest – led to a clampdown on social media, and as a result that startling spike in VPN interest. (One which led Senegal, previously absent in the Google Trends data, to make its debut in 2023.)

Ultimately, though, what all the countries in our top 10 have in common is this: they’ve all incited their populations to turn to VPNs as an important – sometimes the only – way to circumvent informational restrictions and access the internet inhibited.

Let’s dig a little deeper.

What’s Happened in Each Country for VPN Usage Levels?

Below, we’re unpacking each of the countries in our top 10 – Turkmenistan, Ethiopia, Iran, Myanmar, China, Syria, Afghanistan, St Helena, Senegal, and Uganda – in more detail to understand why online interest in VPNs is so high.

We’ll explore the convergence of factors – be they political, cultural, infrastructural, or historical – contributing to each country’s VPN fervor, and how the majority have emerged against backdrops of oppression and information control.

So, let’s get started – and what better place to begin than at the top?

Turkmenistan

Located in central Asia – and bordered by Afghanistan and Iran, both also countries among the world’s highest for VPN searches – Turkmenistan rated 100 in the Google Trends data. This means that VPN-related queries make up a higher percentage of Turkmenistan’s internet searches than anywhere else in the world.

But why? The answer lies, at least partially, in Turkmenistan’s ongoing pursuit of stringent internet censorship.

Aided by its control over Turkmentelecom – the country’s sole authorized internet service provider – the government polices the flow of information: sterilizing, blocking, and controlling the content its citizens have access to (122,000 domains, at the last count, have been blocked).

Add this to Turkmenistan’s paltry internet penetration rate (which, at 38.2%, is central Asia’s lowest), its internet speeds (among the world’s slowest), and its mobile internet costs (among the world’s highest), and the reasoning behind the country’s VPN usage begins to take shape.

That said, typing V, P, and N into a search engine in Turkmenistan isn’t as straightforward as doing so in the Western world. Because Turkmenistan is just one of five countries in the world (the others being Oman, North Korea, Belarus, and Iraq) where VPNs aren’t just restricted, but outlawed altogether.

Turkmen citizens have been arrested and fined for using VPNs, and even – in the case of those caught distributing the technology – given lengthy prison sentences. In 2021, Turkmen internet users reported that authorities had even forced them to swear on the Quran that they wouldn’t use VPNs.

As is the case with most of the countries where searches for VPNs were most popular, Turkmenistan is characterized by political instability. It’s an unofficial dictatorship, with Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow having held power since 2006. (Even since he ostensibly “stepped down” in 2022, he’s continued to rule using his son Serdar as a puppet.)

The country’s human rights record is patchy, with the United Nations Human Rights Committee raising serious concerns about the Turkmen government’s politically motivated persecution of its enemies: journalists, activists, and human rights advocates among them.

Similarly to its counterpart in China (which we’ll discuss soon), Berdimuhamedow’s government justifies its censorship of the internet through claims of preserving the country’s cultural values and national security. However, internet censorship there tends to be wide-ranging and indiscriminate rather than targeted or consistent – leading more and more of its citizens to turn to the online anonymity of outlawed VPNs to get by.

Turkmenistan was not included in Freedom House’s Freedom of the Net Report 2023. However, Turkmenistan’s neighbors Uzbekistan (25/100) and Kazakhstan (34/100) – which it shares a combined total of just over 2,200 km of borders with – ranked 9th and 18th, respectively.

Ethiopia

In 2023, Ethiopia’s internet users searched for VPNs at a higher rate than any other country (bar Turkmenistan) in the world. But why?

On 9 February 2023, Ethiopia blocked access to social media after a chain of events involving the country’s Orthodox Tewahedo Church. After three of the church’s officials broke away – declaring themselves archbishops and setting up their own governing body – violent clashes broke out in the city of Shashemene, leaving several dead. Amid the chaos that erupted, Ethiopia’s government shut down its citizens’ access to social media to curb public outcry.

With platforms such as Facebook, TikTok, YouTube, and Telegram all blocked, Ethiopian social media users were forced to turn to VPNs to circumvent the ban, and leverage their online communities to raise awareness about the ban to international audiences.

The ban lasted until July – just over five months – but, if history is anything to go by, it won’t be Ethiopia’s last dalliance with blocking the internet. During 2015 and 2017, Ethiopian authorities cut access to the internet several times, resulting in a high-profile street protest – the largest of its kind for a quarter of a century. For Ethiopians looking for reliable, untampered access to the internet, VPNs will remain indispensable. In particular, free VPNs.

When narrowing the search term from ‘VPN’ to ‘free VPN’, Google Trends shows that Ethiopia tops the list for this search, with a score of 100. Explaining this is that the average monthly salary in Ethiopia, US$271.27, is the fourth lowest in the world, behind only Zimbabwe, Rwanda, and the Gambia.

The other countries topping Google Trends’ search statistics for ‘free VPN’ include Myanmar (39), Iran (28), Somalia (28), and Afghanistan (28).

Ethiopia’s score of 26/100 in Freedom House’s Freedom of the Net Report 2023 – which equates to a “Not Free” status – saw it squeeze into those rankings’ top 10, alongside Pakistan (also 26/100), and just ahead of Bahrain and Egypt (both 28/100).

Iran

Claiming bronze in 2023’s list of the countries with the highest proportion of VPN use is Iran: a central Asian country marred by a chequered recent history of human rights violations, conflict, and instability of a political, economic, and social nature.

Iran’s pursuit of nuclear militarisation, stance on women’s rights issues, and ever-more aggressive approach to foreign policy have led to increasingly strained international relations, and – within Iran – entrenched civil division.

This has manifested in ongoing protests: most recently, riots that began in September 2022. The protests – which raged on for most of 2023 – erupted after reports that 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini, who was arrested after failing to comply with the country’s strict dress code policy for women, had been murdered in police custody.

That same September saw a staggering 3,000% surge in VPN demand in Iran. (In that same month, a similar phenomenon occurred in Armenia and Azerbaijan, where violent border clashes led to an uptick in VPN demand of 84% and 751%, respectively.)

In 2024, Iran remains one of the most heavily censored countries in the world. Among the sites it blocks include news outlets, political websites, social media platforms, and LGBTQ-related sites. (Iran is, incidentally, one of the only places in the world to actively execute gay men for homosexuality.)

Iran also moves, like China, to curb content around social mobilization, for example, protests advocating for women’s or LGBTQ rights; and cut off popular messaging apps, such as WhatsApp, to enforce curfews and curtail involvement in anti-government initiatives.

Yet, while Iran does block its citizens’ access to software privacy tools, VPNs aren’t outlawed outright. Instead, Iranians can sign up to VPNs – albeit ones that have been registered with, and approved by, Iran’s government.

However, these VPNs (by the very fact that the government allows them) don’t offer the same anonymity from official snooping as their unregulated counterparts. What’s more, they won’t allow their users to circumvent official blocks on blacklisted sites: which in Iran include YouTube, LinkedIn, TikTok, X (formerly Twitter), Facebook, Reddit, Signal, Disney+, Netflix, Hulu, Fox News, CBS News, The Verge, and plenty more.

In early 2022, Iran proposed a law that, if passed, would see VPN use come with a penalty of up to two years in prison. Despite this, it’s clearly a go-to choice for many in Iran – especially among younger demographics. A recent report suggested that 97% of 15- to 17-year-olds use VPNs, with around two in three of Iran’s population at large relying on them.

In Freedom House’s Freedom of the Net Report 2023, Iran received a score of 11/100, denoting a “Not Free” status. This was the third worst score of the 70 countries assessed, upstaged only by Myanmar (10/100) and China (9/100).

Myanmar (Burma)

Like many of the countries on this list, Myanmar (formerly Burma) – which, with a score of 65 in the Google Trends data, ranked fourth in the world for VPN searches in 2023 – has a strong track record when it comes to censoring the internet.

For many years, Myanmar’s military government retained an iron grip on the web: limiting Burmese citizens’ access to it through technical and infrastructural restrictions and an aggressive regime of software-based censorship.

Hefty fines for anyone attempting to circumvent these barriers were common; as were long prison sentences for serious or repeat offenders.

In 2011, however, these restrictions loosened. Over the following decade, internet penetration – despite lingering levies on total online freedom – increased. But in 2021, the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, seized power from the country’s civilian government in a bloodless coup d’etat, declaring a state of emergency and repudiating the results of the latest election.

The Tatmadaw proceeded to swiftly shut down the internet: blacklisting social media sites, cutting mass communication almost entirely, and initiating a campaign of online surveillance in a move Freedom House dubbed “the most severe decline” in internet liberties it had recorded.

Myanmar’s citizens responded by turning to VPNs; its government responded in turn. In January 2022 – less than a year after the coup that plunged the country into its current crisis – the Tatmadaw proposed a law banning VPNs. Under this ruling – which, according to some reports, is already effectively in place despite not yet having passed into law – police will have the right to stop citizens on the street, without cause, and inspect their phones for VPN software. If a VPN is found, users can face fines – and up to three years in prison.

In Freedom House’s Freedom of the Net Report 2023, Myanmar’s score of 10/100, denoting a “Not Free” status, was the second-lowest score of the 70 countries assessed.

China

That China placed a global fifth for VPN-related searches in 2023 comes as no surprise. The only shock, perhaps, is that it didn’t place even higher.

Led by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), China’s regime of internet censorship is one of the most zealous and wide-ranging on the planet. Included among the blocked sites are not only popular Western social media platforms (such as Instagram, Facebook, X, Snapchat, Tumblr, Reddit, YouTube, and Pinterest), but a wide range of enterprise and productivity apps: including Slack, Hootsuite, Dropbox, Gmail, G Suite, and Microsoft OneDrive.

Google, Wikipedia, and Quora have been blacklisted; as have messaging tools like WhatsApp, Viber, Signal, Facebook Messenger, Line, and Telegram. And, while homegrown alternatives to these prohibited platforms do exist – such as WeChat instead of WhatsApp, or QQ Music instead of Spotify – they’re compelled to comply with China’s intelligence laws, and submit to the prying eyes of its internet censors.

As for Google, it remains partially banned. The CCP and Google have endured a terse relationship ever since the search engine giant refused to comply with Chinese censorship requests and relocated its base there from Beijing to Hong Kong. Now, anyone attempting to access Google from mainland China will be redirected to its Hong Kong service, and be returned only CCP-censored results.

This, perhaps, explains why China places only fifth for VPN-related searches in the Google Trends findings. Had there been more internet freedom, such as the ability to access Google in an unadulterated form, it’s likely China’s VPN-related searches in 2023 would’ve been far higher.

Plus, unlike Western messaging apps, such as Facebook Messenger, Signal, and WhatsApp, Chinese alternatives aren’t encrypted – meaning any messages sent are fair game for the CCP.

The reasons for China’s overzealous oversight of the internet are myriad.

Politically, China utilizes the internet to block its citizens’ freedom of assembly, association, and speech: suppressing any voices advocating for anything the CCP doesn’t stand for. (This includes trifling matters such as democracy, independence, and human rights.) Like the Taliban in Afghanistan, China justifies the widespread blacklisting of websites under the pretense of blocking content it deems “immoral”, or at odds with traditional Chinese values. This includes LGBTQIA+ content, as well as pornography.

Really, though, China simply bans any content that might draw attention to anything it feels uncomfortable discussing. Beijing continually evades and eliminates references to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, Tibetan independence, or Beijing’s ongoing persecution of the Uighur ethnic minority in Xinjiang: a campaign that involves cultural suppression, forced labor, and mass detention in government-run concentration camps.

VPNs can – and are, widely – used by Chinese residents to circumvent China’s “Great FireWall”. And, though the CCP places heavy restrictions on VPN use and distribution (official policy dictates that government-unapproved VPNs are banned), they’re not actually illegal.

That explains the staggering volume of VPN-related internet searches China saw in 2023, then. The only irony? Anyone searching for VPNs from within China is unlikely to be able to access one.

VPN websites have joined the litany of those already blocked in China, meaning anyone planning to use one in the country will need to download and install it before traveling there.

China’s score of 9/100 in In Freedom House’s Freedom of the Net Report 2023 was the world’s first, indicating a “Not Free” status – and by some margin.

Syria

Placing sixth for VPN searches by its residents, Syria is another country suffering from severe restrictions on freedom of speech, expression, and – of course – the internet.

Since 2011, when a pro-democratic uprising against President Bashar al-Assad took place, the Middle Eastern country has been embroiled in a civil war.

Drought, economic disparities, and simmering religious tensions (in particular, the division between Syria’s Sunni majority and the ruling Alawite, who practice a form of Shia Islam) combined to form a heady, explosive cocktail of conflict. And turn previously peaceful protests into a violent insurgency, the grip of which Syria still writhes in today.

Amid the political and economic wreckage of almost one and a half decades of in-fighting, Syrian citizens’ access to the internet has suffered. A scheme of “internet rationing” caps the amount of monthly data individuals can use, while the internet that is available comes in a heavily censored form. Among the websites blacklisted include Wikipedia and Al-Quds Al-Arabi – a pan-Arab daily newspaper published in London – along with any sites that take an anti-government stance.

Due to the impact of economic sanctions imposed by the international community, Syria has also struggled with external censorship: and remains cut off from a range of Western content and websites because of this.

Similarly to China, Afghanistan – and, in fact, almost every government that limits its subjects’ access to information and the internet – Syria’s rationale for blacklisting huge swathes of websites is to shield people from subversive outside influences. Yet the ban appears to be applied in a scattershot style, with little underlying logic as to which sites are scrubbed, and which are freely accessible (social media sites, for example, remain unblocked in 2024).

Syrians have been circumventing this ban for many years via free proxy services. However, justifiable doubts around the anonymity of these apps, and their ability to be traced by the Syrian government, have led to increasingly fervent interest in a more reliable option: VPNs.

Given that the country’s ongoing censorship and struggles show no sign of abating, it’s little surprise that Syrian demand for VPNs – sixth-highest in 2023 – rose by +108% from 2022 levels, the second-largest increase (behind only the similarly war-torn Afghanistan) on our list.

Syria was not included in Freedom House’s Freedom of the Net Report 2023.

Afghanistan

Seventh on the list of VPN-demanding countries is Afghanistan: a failed central Asian state bordered by Iran to the west, Turkmenistan to the north, and China to the east.

A country of rich culture and history – albeit one marred by bloody conflict – Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, fell on 15 August 2021. Afghan’s security forces collapsed, and the Taliban – the militant Pashtun national organization implicated in 2001’s 9/11 atrocities against the US – seized control of the country.

Upon claiming power, the Taliban quickly moved to block Afghanis’ access to the internet outright. More recently, however, this has softened, with the internet (albeit 2G; though some parts of Kabul have 4G) available to more than nine million internet users in the country. As we’ve already seen, though, internet access doesn’t mean uninhibited internet access.

The Taliban are no stranger to implementing swift, targeted internet shutdowns when it suits them – such as to prevent protests, or deter Afghans from being recruited by enemy forces – and censorship is rife. For example, the group blacklisted 23 million websites, claiming them to be un-Islamic and immoral, and social media is monitored for anti-Taliban content.

Despite Afghans’ access to the internet then, the country’s citizens live in a culture of fear and ceaseless, Big Brother-esque surveillance, with the Taliban (an organization known for its ruthlessness and violence) thought to be monitoring web traffic and keeping tabs on Google searches. Amid this climate, it’s unsurprising that searches for VPNs are taking off – a rise made clear by the +156% increase Afghanistan’s VPN queries saw from 2022, which was the largest increase in the rankings.

Unlike its neighbors China and Iran (where VPN use is restricted), or Turkmenistan (where it’s flat-out illegal) VPNs remain legal and unrestricted in Afghanistan.

For how long, we don’t know.

Afghanistan was not included in Freedom House’s Freedom of the Net Report 2023, although neighboring Russia was: the Putin-led country’s ranking of 21/100 (“Not Free”) placed it in fifth, sandwiched between Cuba (fourth, 20/100) and Vietnam (sixth, 22/100).

St Helena

Placing eighth on our list of countries where VPN is in the highest demand is a country that’s notable for being, well – not actually a country.

St Helena is a remote island in the South Atlantic Ocean. Part of an archipelago that also includes the islands Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, it’s part of British territory with a population of just over 5,300 people, and almost 2,000 kilometers between it and the nearest mainland coastline.

So – why are St Helena’s denizens so interested in VPNs? After all, the territory isn’t suffering under draconian internet censorship laws, or writhing in the grip of a despot. Viewed vis a vis the other nine countries here, St Helena is a striking outlier. What’s going on?

Well, it’s first worth noting that due to St Helena’s remote location, internet access has long been notoriously slow and expensive. Traditionally, the island’s inhabitants relied on satellite-enabled internet provided by a single ISP, Sure.

Other providers, such as Starlink, attempted to disrupt Sure’s monopoly – unsuccessfully. Sure lobbied to local government, and Starlink, along with other competing internet services, were outlawed. (We said St Helena wasn’t despotic. We can’t say the same for its internet setup!)

Given this, it appears the people of St Helena have been turning to VPNs as a way of protecting their anonymity while accessing cheaper, or more reliable, Sure alternatives. Given the ban on these – which was announced in late July 2023, and came into force just over three months later – VPN use in St Helena is evidently motivated by its residents’ wish to avoid financial or legal repercussions, while enjoying better connectivity.

One source – a website dedicated to providing information for tourists to St Helena – also discusses pervasive local rumors suggesting that Sure monitors its customers’ traffic, and reports this data back to the island’s government. Whether these assertions are true or not, they add fuel to the fire of VPN demand – and St Helena’s lack of legally binding data protection laws certainly creates an environment in which this kind of surveillance could happen.

Things are looking up for St Helena, however. In October 2023, however, a new submarine fiber-optic cable went live, and will supply the island with quick, reliable internet.

St Helena was not included in Freedom House’s Freedom of the Net Report 2023. The United Kingdom – of which St Helena, Ascension, and Tristan da Cunha is a territory of – featured on the list in 66th place. The UK scored 79/100, denoting “Free” status.

Senegal

Joining Ethiopia and Uganda in a trifecta of African nations on this list, Senegal places a global ninth for VPN-related Google searches.

And, like its African counterparts, the Senegalese government – despite the country being one of West Africa’s smattering of stable democracies – has a habit of censoring the internet as and when it suits its purposes. In June 2023, for example, Senegal blocked several social media platforms – including WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube – amid violent protests following the sentencing of Ousmane Sonko, leader of the opposing party PASTEF.

The result? Record levels of Senegal-based business for VPN providers. One, Proton VPN, saw a 2,800% uptick in signups as the country’s internet users fought to retain access to their social and communication platforms. Another source reported in June 2023 that Senegal’s VPN demand had risen by over 60,000% compared to the previous month – an eye-opening increase that evidently contributed healthily to Senegal’s status in our top 10.

While the ban only lasted for a week, it’s not the first time Senegal’s president, Macky Sall, has pulled the network plug in times of instability. And for many political commentators, this weaponisation of internet connectivity is a harbinger of democratic backsliding; a move indicative of a country tottering unsteadily atop the slippery slope of authoritarianism.

Senegal was not included in Freedom House’s Freedom of the Net Report 2023. However, Senegal’s neighbor, The Gambia, did, placing 37th with a score of 56/100 (“Partly Free”).

Uganda

Straddling the Equator to Africa’s east, Uganda scored 33 in our list of the countries with the most VPN searches, placing it 10th in the global rankings.

And you don’t have to look far to see why.

Led by a government that has held power since 1986 – largely through misappropriating state resources, intimidating journalists, and prosecuting leaders of opposing political parties – Uganda’s history is one of violence and civil unrest. This has engendered a culture of censorship that has seen anti-government journalists arrested and beaten and internet services intermittently shut off by the government.

For example, in January 2021 – mere days before Uganda’s presidential elections – incumbent President Yoweri Museveni shut down the internet in a move to clamp down on dissenting voices. Despite the country’s internet access being later restored – only after a comprehensive win for Museveni, naturally – some sites, such as Facebook, remain blacklisted to this day. (A ban echoed by familiar names such as China, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, and Turkmenistan.)

Given this backdrop, it’s no surprise that Ugandans are turning to VPNs as a more reliable way to browse – and to infuriate their government. And that they’re doing so in an increasing capacity, too: Uganda’s +106% increase from 2022 was the third-highest, behind only Afghanistan and Syria, in our rankings.

While VPNs aren’t illegal in Uganda, they have been subject to blocks since 2018. Then, the government had just introduced a social media tax – a levy of around $0.051 per day to use platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook, and X.

Realizing that its citizens were turning to VPNs as a way of circumventing those (since abolished) taxes, the Ugandan government has been waging a war with VPNs ever since. (It even took to Facebook in 2018 to discourage its internet users from VPN use.)

Uganda is also notable for its draconian and discriminatory anti-homosexuality laws, which are among the harshest in the world. Despite both domestic and international pressure, Uganda doubled down on its stance in 2023 with the Anti-Homosexuality Act, which prescribes anywhere from twenty years in prison to the death penalty for gay sex.

On top of this, the 2023 bill banned the “promotion of homosexuality”, too – outlawing the promotion of LGBT rights, and up to two decades imprisonment for anyone who “advertises, publishes, prints, broadcasts, [or] distributes” LGBT-advocating material. With such severe sanctions, Ugandans’ ongoing interest in VPNs to browse anonymously makes complete sense.

Freedom House’s Freedom of the Net Report 2023 gave Uganda a score of 51/100, denoting a “Partly Free” status. This ranked Uganda 31st of the 70 countries featured.

The Countries With the Worst Levels of Internet Freedom

Throughout this list, we’ve also assessed each of the top countries for VPN searches in 2023 alongside their rankings in Freedom House’s Freedom of the Net Report 2023.

Each year, these rankings explore access to the internet in a growing number of countries (70 in 2023): evaluating each based on the extent to which they facilitate and champion freedom of expression – rather than suppression – through a lens of basic human rights.

Despite a strong correlation, though, not all the countries profiled here appear on that list – and not all countries in Freedom House’s rankings feature here. So before we wrap things up, let’s recap the worst (and the best) countries when it comes to levels of internet freedom.

The worst 10 countries for internet freedom in 2023, according to Freedom House, are:

  1. China (9/100)
  2. Myanmar (10/100)
  3. Iran (11/100)
  4. Cuba (20/100)
  5. Russia (21/100)
  6. Vietnam (22/100)
  7. Belarus (25/100)
  8. Saudi Arabia (25/100)
  9. Uzbekistan (25/100)
  10. Ethiopia (26/100)

Of the countries in Freedom House’s list that didn’t make it into our top 10 for VPN searches – Cuba, Russia, Vietnam, Belarus, Saudi Arabia, and Uzbekistan – all still ranked relatively highly in the Google Trends data we relied on. Particularly Cuba, which came in at 11th place for global 2023 VPN demand. Saudi Arabia placed 35th, Russia 36th, Uzbekistan 43rd, Belarus 60th, and Vietnam 68th.

These countries stand in stark juxtaposition to the best countries for internet freedom – though bear in mind, only 70 in total were ranked – in 2023.

Freedom House’s top 10 places to access an unfiltered internet in 2023 were:

  1. Iceland (94/100)
  2. Estonia (93/100)
  3. Canada (88/100)
  4. Costa Rica (85/100)
  5. United Kingdom (79/100)
  6. Taiwan (78/100)
  7. Japan (77/100)
  8. Germany (77/100)
  9. United States (76/100)
  10. Georgia (76/100)

Conclusion

2023 was a year rocked by political and social upheaval around the world.

Violent protests broke out in Senegal, and continued in Iran. Uganda increased its sanctions against homosexuality – to a lethal extent. Fatal clashes broke out in Ethiopia, while the war-torn cities of Damascus and Kabul continued to smolder.

People were killed standing up for what they believed in, or simply because they were caught in the crossfire of a war they wanted no part of. Rockets and bombs fell; bullets flew. While, in the chaos, despotic and power-hungry governments were making a weapon of a different kind – the internet.

Through this lens, VPN use can be seen as a kind of leveling force: a bulwark against the most egregious, aggressive state intrusions into the freedoms, rights, and lives of its subjects.

Or, in simpler terms, an age-old tale of ‘good vs evil’.

All over the world in 2023, VPNs helped people push back against authoritarianism and oppression – yet authoritarianism and oppression continue to fight back. Iran and Myanmar are both introducing (and already enforcing) anti-VPN laws. The fact that people in China and Turkmenistan have been imprisoned for VPN usage speaks volumes about how seriously governments take it – and the growing danger VPN use will pose in these countries.

Framing such complex geopolitical narratives in terms of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ is flawed, of course. But if we were to do so, well – it’s clear which side VPNs would be on.

References

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Rob Binns

Rob brings a wealth of expertise to the realm of writing and editing, boasting a diverse background across various subjects such as cybersecurity, renewable energy, appliances, home security, and business software. His accomplished portfolio includes contributions to publications like Eco Experts, The Independent, Home Business, Expert Market, Payments Journal, and Yahoo! Finance. Fueled by a fervor for online privacy, Rob channels his passion into articles for Techopedia. There, he delves into topics ranging from cybersecurity to VPNs, providing insightful and engaging content for readers.