Back when the internet first came into existence, it was commonly referred to as the information superhighway. The reason for this description was that it provided access to a limitless stream of data.
Fast forward to the present day, internet censorship has changed the status quo. The term refers to the suppression or control of what people can access or post on the internet. Reasons for internet censorship vary from one place to another, as do the perpetrators.
Though we live in an era of perceived freedom, it is far from absolute. In some cases, censorship results from good intentions, such as seeking to protect the vulnerable. But in others, the intentions raise doubts. Whatever the case may be, in both instances the result is blocking access to content.
In this article, we take a closer look at various aspects related to internet censorship. These include identifying the censors and looking at how it works. We will also examine whether there are any benefits or disadvantages to it.
Let us get started by taking a look at internet censorship.
Who are the censors?
There are different levels of censorship, with two main categories of censors. These are:
Countries with internet censorship
A number of states around the world are known for censoring the internet. These exercise varying levels of suppression and control over what residents can access. Let us take a look at some of the top countries with internet suppression around the globe:
Under what the world refers to as the Great Firewall of China, the country regulates internet consumption. It limits domestic internet use, cross-border traffic and access to popular sites. These include sites like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Gmail and Google Search among others.
Though the public initially opposed it, with time it has promoted the growth of local online platforms.
Saudi Arabia blocks any content that it considers immoral according to Islamic law. Its internet regulation also blocks political content on two criteria: content that is against national policies or the royal family is not permissible.
Although they do not block foreign sites, they restrict access. For instance, residents can use Telegram and Facebook. But they cannot share files or images on the platforms. Occasionally, Saudi Arabia also blocks sites that publish illegal or offensive content.
These include X-rated content, gambling and pirated material among other things. It has, however, helped to limit the spread of pro-terrorism and jihadist content.
Under its communist regime, Vietnam limits access to anti-communist and anti-government content. Apart from the political aspects, social media users and bloggers cannot gather data or publish content about the government.
The local constitution allows the government to remove content it considers offensive or a threat to national security.
Somalia has limited internet connectivity. Only about 2% of its population, mostly in the Northern region has internet access. The government nonetheless enforces censorship by shutting down the internet altogether in some cases. In other cases, it blocks access to specific sites that it considers critical.
The practice reached a peak in Syria in 2011 following the Arab Spring. At the time, the essence was to control anti-government movements on social media. These were springing up to advocate for a change of regime.
Though it takes place all over the country, it is particularly prevalent in government control areas. They block access to specific sites related to minorities, human rights and politics among others.
In this country, internet regulation is particularly stringent. All X-rated and anti-government content is under complete ban. And they heavily censor social media and other websites. These include at least 500 of the most popular sites globally.
Among these are American and European organizations, which top the list. Additionally, the government ensures that citizens do not circumvent the measures. Therefore, maximum internet speeds are 128 kbps, about half that of the US. Proxies and VPNs are also out of question.
Here the practice extends beyond internet restrictions to cover speech, advertising and the media. They block sites that criticize the regime as well as X-rated sites and YouTube among others.
There are multiple laws and mechanisms in Russia to enforce the practice. Starting in 2012, the country has operated a centralized blacklist dubbed the “single register.” It contains individual URLs, IP addresses and domain names.
At the onset, they would block sites with child pornography, drug abuse and suicide content. But a later extension now blocks everything they classify as extremist. They also greatly limit media freedom and have the constitutional right to shut down online outlets.
In this country, the government censors everything from radio and television content to school activities. Citizens can only use smartphones that local manufacturers produce. There is literally no internet in the real sense of the word.
Rather, the government uses social site clones for Facebook and other platforms. Citizens can only access the local version of the internet via dial-up.
Internet regulation in democracies
In most democracies, the practice is relatively moderate. This is especially true when comparing them to the aforementioned countries. In some African countries, for instance, the government may censor specific apps or sites around election time.
Countries like Cameroon, Uganda and Rwanda also periodically experience routine online content shutdowns.
More surprisingly, the US censors certain sites from time to time. Considering that one of its founding principles is freedom of expression, this may come as a shock. Under the First Amendment of the US Constitution, everyone has a right to freedom of speech and expression. This applies against the state, local government and federal censorship.
Notably, direct censorship is therefore not possible. But there are exceptions such as child pornography and other obscenities. They also seek to protect the privacy of minors online. Thus, the federal authorities assist libraries and K-12 schools to restrict access to unsuitable material.
Institutions that impose internet restrictions
Interestingly, it is not only states that impose internet restrictions. Various private institutions also mandate censorship. Let us consider this in greater detail:
- At home
There are tons of content on the internet that parents would not want children to access. This may include pornography, gambling, hate speech and chat rooms among others. The reasoning behind this is to limit children’s exposure to harmful or negative content.
However, parents also have a hard time monitoring children’s internet access at all times. As such, they turn to hardware and software designed for internet filtering. These could include programs like CYBERsitter and Net Nanny.
These give parents control over the content kids can access. They use blacklisting and keyword blocking to block access to the content a parent specifies.
- Web service operator self-censorship
Online service operators often limit the kind of content users can post. Many platforms therefore outline terms of service specifying inadmissible content. They reserve the right to suspend user accounts or remove content when they violate their terms.
To illustrate, Facebook does not permit the posting of hateful, threatening, inciting or violent content. It also blocks pornography, discriminatory content, nudity and graphic content. The same applies to Google, Twitter, YouTube, Wikipedia and other web services.
At times employers restrict employee internet access for a number of reasons. These could include increasing productivity and avoiding lawsuits. Though employees can use online resources constructively, they could also waste time surfing.
Additionally, when they access inappropriate content, others could feel that the environment is hostile. And this could lead to lawsuits. In most cases, they use firewalls to select web pages and domains to block undesired content.
- Internet Service Providers (ISPs)
ISPs in countries like the US can charge fees for bandwidth usage to content providers. Those that pay the fee have their pages load faster than those that do not. Opponents of this concept assert that this is tantamount to censorship.
In its place, they fight for what they term as net neutrality. Essentially, this refers to a level playing field on which ISPs do not favor any site or company in allowing access to content.
ISPs can also pull the plug to shut down internet access altogether. This took place in Egypt in 2011 on government orders following widespread protests.
How does internet censorship work?
We have seen a number of countries and institutions that impose internet restrictions for various reasons. But how exactly do they do this? How does internet censorship work? Let us find out:
IP address blocking
IP address blocking involves denying access to a specific address. It might block all sites that share a hosting server and it mostly affects POP, HTTP and FTP sites.
Users can circumvent this measure by looking for proxies that can access the sites. However, certain sites also block proxies.
Large sites like Google have multiple IP addresses to circumvent blocks. But oftentimes, those intent on blocking content sooner or later block new addresses too.
Computer network attacks
Another common method involves Denial of Service (DoS) attacks. These basically deface target websites but they are mostly only temporary.
It is among the most common methods used during sensitive periods such as elections. In other cases, perpetrators may be non-state actors simply out to disrupt services.
Domain Name System (DNS) blocking
When an entity blocks a specific domain name, a user will get an incorrect IP address message. This may take place as a result of DNS hijacking and can also affect IP-based sites.
Circumventing this may require finding an alternative DNS resolver. This can resolve a domain name accurately unless it too becomes subject to blocking.
Alternatively, one can find the IP address from another source and bypass the DNS. A user in this case can simply type the IP address rather than the domain name.
Search result removal
Search engines and other major portals can exclude specific sites. If this happens, the site in question becomes invisible. It may happen at the sole discretion of the portal or to meet a legal requirement.
To illustrate, Google.de removed Neo-Nazi among other listings to comply with German law.
Basically, this involves matching all traffic on the web against a specific database. Depending on whether a site is on the database or not, it then denies access to it.
Some URL filtering systems use machine learning to categorize sites and determine what to block. This is a more efficient approach as it does not rely on an existing database, which might not be exhaustive.
Among the simplest methods, this one involves pulling plugs and switching off machines. It may use software or hardware but the result is the same, no internet access.
An effective circumvention method around this is the use of satellite ISPs to access the web.
Deep Packet Inspection (DPI)
The control of network access through the analysis of incoming and outgoing packets is another method. It allows the censor to halt specific packets and let others pass on the basis of various criteria.
These could include the source, the destination, or the protocol being used or the IP address. It might also use a set of specified keywords to determine what goes through and what does not. The method can censor search engine results as well as all sites using TCP-based protocols.
Beating internet censorship by using a VPN
With the right tools, you can completely ignore all but the most stringent internet censorship measures. The most surefire way is to subscribe to a good Virtual Private Network (VPN) service.
By using a VPN, you are able to bypass much of the internet infrastructure of your ISP. All requests, including DNS requests, are handled by VPN servers, so the ISP cannot censor the content you are accessing. Furthermore, all the traffic is encrypted, so even intercepting it won’t do the censors any good.
The same can be said about censorship at the LAN level, and even the device level (assuming you have the permissions necessary to install the VPN app).
If you need proof that VPNs are an effective tool against censorship, look no further than the fact that many governments have severely restricted or outright banned VPN use. The list of countries where this has happened is telling – China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Belarus, and North Korea are just some examples.
Yet a good VPN service can deal with VPN bans – they have features like Obfuscated Servers or a Stealth Mode, so that nosy ISPs cannot distinguish VPN traffic from regular traffic.
Internet censorship pros and cons
The practice of censoring the internet elicits a mixture of reactions from different entities. And the truth of the matter is that there could be two sides to the coin. Let us go through a number of internet censorship pros and cons.
- Protecting the vulnerable
The internet has very few checks in place to protect vulnerable ones such as children. They could mistakenly stumble upon age-inappropriate content.
In order to ensure that they safely use the internet, it might be necessary to limit content access. Having options to control what children access could be a helpful protective measure.
- Limiting exposure to shocking content
Some internet users try to create infamy by posting outrageous or shocking content. People upload disturbing content on social media platforms. There have been posts of gruesome murders, animal attacks and even sexual assault.
Censoring such content protects platform users from the psychological trauma of viewing such content.
- Reducing criminal activity
Malicious actors use the internet for criminal activities. These include identity theft, terrorism, phishing, and others. Banning content that perpetrates illegal activities means more protection for the people.
- Blocking potential hacking attempts
Individuals using the internet can enjoy greater safety thanks to the practice. When regulations block access to malicious sites, they work for the good of internet users.
- Limiting the public’s check on the government
When members of the public cannot speak out against the people in charge, the result can be devastating. The authorities can easily get away with almost anything as there are no checks in place.
- Discrimination issues
Censoring content gives some people power over others. The person in charge of filtering content simply relies on their own sense of wrong and right. In the process, they might discriminate others as they have the ultimate say.
- Stopping information flow
Administrative authorities may limit the flow of information when it does not work to their advantage. In the process, useful information might end up banned, promoting ignorance.
- Limiting freedom of expression
The world cannot agree on everything. Someone may term innocent comments offensive. An attempt to create a universal agreement by censoring differing opinion limits freedom. Rather, it creates a layer of legal bureaucracy for everyone, regardless of their views.
- Cost concerns
While it may have numerous positives, censoring internet use is by no means a cheap endeavor. Institutions spend outrageous amounts for this. China spent at least $770 million for the exercise at a time when the internet only had 22 million users. The amount must be much higher now.
The practice of internet censorship has its merits and demerits. But these will often depend on the implementation process. While it can yield obvious protective advantages, the application of arbitrary decisions can be a major downfall in the process.
In order to ensure a healthy perspective, it requires a balanced approach. Fighting against selfish ambition and promoting security and protection is core in the process.
Failure to condemn the ills of the exercise can lead to a world where information becomes a currency for a privileged few. Balance is clearly the key to ensuring that it limits potential harm and makes the world a better place.
Nica is a BA Political Science degree holder who specializes in fintech, SaaS, business and academic writing. She has experience working with founders who graduated from Harvard, tech startups funded by Y-Combinator, CEOs of multi-million dollar blockchain companies, investment companies in London and many more.