Last update: 06.25.2019

Governments, ISPs, businesses, and places of education all censor the internet, albeit for different reasons. Whether it’s to suppress dissenting narratives, increase productivity, or improve profit margins, the consequences for the end user are equally annoying and, in some cases, downright unconscionable.

In this article, we’ll go into the topic of what internet censorship is – how it works in different institutions, how it is justified, and of course, how to beat it.

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Why censor?

Censorship can be taken as a broad concept or a very specific phenomenon.

  • When we hear “censorship,” most of us immediately think of the state:

The Nazis burning books, China blocking Wikipedia – these are vivid examples of the state acting as a censor. In each case, the reasons for censorship are slightly different, but it all boils down to maintaining the status quo. Information that contradicts the narrative of the state may encourage citizens to demand change, causing the powerful to become powerless.

the famous Tiananmen Square

The internet has quickly become the most important source of news and information in a large part of the world. Therefore, many governments feel they must censor it to preserve order and stay in power.

Yet there is another prime reason governments censor the internet – protecting the law of the land or protecting business interests. In the West, this usually has to do with copyright law (that’s why countries ban torrent websites), but it can be other laws as well. Deeply religious countries, for example, often block pornography websites. Countries with anti-gambling laws block gambling websites, and so on.

  • Places of work engage in internet censorship for two general reasons:

To prevent people from wasting time and in the name of cybersecurity. It just so happens that these dual purposes frequently coincide, and the usual victims are torrent, porn, streaming, and online game websites.

The libraries of education institutions are often even more draconian when it comes to internet censorship, blocking much of the non-academic web.

Workplace censorship

In the introduction, we also mentioned censorship instigated by ISPs and we don’t just mean “carried out via ISPs.” This worrying trend has already made an appearance in several countries, but most people will know it as:

The repeal of net neutrality

Much has been said about the repeal of net neutrality in the US. Users should know at least two things about net neutrality.

Net neutrality prevents ISPs from discriminating internet communications based on the user, content, website, platform, application, type of equipment, or method of communication. In simple terms, that means ISPs can’t charge extra for you to be able to watch Netflix or play Fortnite, for example. Now that it has been repealed, there’s no reason (other than public opinion and state laws) why telecommunications companies shouldn’t cash in.

There’s little reason to believe that the repeal of neutrality had any motive beyond financial gain, however, there’s no getting around the fact that this essentially grants ISPs the right to censor the internet with very little oversight.

How does internet censorship work?

Censorship can occur at various points of the internet infrastructure. As a useful simplification, we can say you may encounter censorship at the:

  • ISP level
  • LAN level
  • Device level

Governments implement censorship via ISPs, who manage the internet infrastructure within the country. They do this by blocking IPs, banning domains with specific keywords at the Domain Name System (DNS) level, or using Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) to find those keywords within the content users are accessing on the web.

How DNS blocking works
How DNS blocking works

Employers and places of education usually block websites at the Local Area Network (LAN) level. That is to say, access is blocked by the router, which is the gateway between your LAN and the internet.

With that said, a more hardcore method of censorship is sometimes used as well. It works by exploiting user permissions – the Administrator can set what the other users of the device are able to access. This also applies to parental filters, blocking children from using certain apps or accessing certain content online.

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.

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A word of caution

We firmly believe that internet censorship (or any kind of censorship) is only acceptable under very specific conditions. These include protecting young children, preserving the integrity of a legal case, or safeguarding the lives of people. However, oftentimes censorship has nothing to do with these noble reasons. The internet was created as a forum for the free exchange of ideas – thankfully, we have tools that allow us to keep it that way.