With all that is going on in the world right now, it can be tough to keep up with every cause, every important issue, and every detail that is just under the radar but can still have a big impact on your life. Nevertheless, internet censorship is something that anyone who uses an internet connection (and even many who do not) should be concerned with. If you are reading this, then by some standards, you are lucky. If you are reading this, you may still have some say and control over how the internet is regulated and controlled in your life.
While saying "extreme internet censorship is bad" may feel right, it is more complicated than that. It is a multifaceted issue, and internet censorship in one country will not look like internet censorship in another. In some countries, censorship might not be present, but the seeds might be there. After reading this article, we hope you will better understand the issue, how extreme it is in some regions of the world, what it looks like, and more.
What Is Internet Censorship and Why Is It Important?
First, we should try our best to define exactly what internet censorship is, given how broad a topic it can be considered to be. Internet censorship is the suppression of information online or access to the internet by a regulatory body. For this article, we consider these bodies to be government entities. It can be done by a variety of methods and for a range of justifications. Censorship can be a constant factor, or it can be enacted during emergencies (or particular situations).
Depending on the culture and political reality, it is also possible that citizens or organizations in a country will engage in self-censorship to avoid suspicion or gain better social standing. In countries that have a long history of censorship, this is likely to occur. While this is a significant concern, we will not take a deep-dive into the phenomena in this article.
Finally, the internet itself is a relatively new technology. Internet censorship as it stands today will likely change over time, and we may fine-tune the definition in the future. Nonetheless, it is similar to the past media and print censorship, only more efficient and potentially more concerning.
The Link Between Censorship and Surveillance
We also want to bring up the fact that censorship also generally requires some level of surveillance. Even if you do not necessarily care about specific topics or would not be involved in any questionable activity, the government needs to check for restricted speech somehow. While in some cases it is not that much different than an advanced Google search with bots, in other places, the government may be forcing ISPs to reveal information or directly monitor the activity of "suspicious individuals."
Censorship and enhanced surveillance are used by the same authoritarian regimes and bodies, and they generally serve the same purposes. If a government is engaging in one, there is no reason to assume they are not engaging in the other. We will go into further detail about how governments can do this later in the article.
The Difference Between Censorship and Content Moderation
We wanted to mention the difference between internet censorship and content moderation or removal of content for non-censorship reasons (such as copyright law) online. While they may appear the same in some ways, content moderation is more of a private affair and involves a private decision to remove content or not allow it in the first place.
As we look at it here, Internet censorship applies specifically to government action to control and censor the internet, not anything else. If a website owner does not like your online comments, they have every right to come in and delete your comment, much like you would if it were your website. However, if the government forces a person or organization to delete content on their website, that is a different story and is just censorship.
If you see actions or content on a site you do not like or feel restricted on a private site, just remember there is a difference between government censorship of the internet and a controlled feed of content on a site (even those that might be ethically dubious and misleading). Think of these restrictions much like a code of conduct at a church or country club. Ideally, you would just go elsewhere if you didn't like them.
Commonly Censored Speech and Content
Nearly every country will practice internet censorship at some level for what they deem the good of the public. However, it is generally the extent of the censorship that is the issue. Whether the censorship interrupts the free flow of information required for a well-functioning society and whether the censorship is generally in line with an informed public's will are the key questions.
Much censorship is not for the greater good, and here we would like to explain what types of censorship are most common before talking about some of the worst offenders. Most will seem familiar, but others might be new to you.
Political Statements and Speech: Perhaps the first thing most people think of when they think of censorship. Political censorship involves the government attempting to cover up or prevent the spread of political news or information it deems unsatisfactory. This is generally to make the government look better and to help keep the ruling party in power. A typical example would be the banning of dissemination of the works of a government dissident.
State Secrets: Given how easily information can flow online and through other channels, the protection of state secrets and sensitive information is trickier than ever. Often it might be the censorship of communications from service members (for example, the censorship of letters from soldiers in World War II) or people in sensitive government positions.
This is generally not as much of a concern, and the legal and moral debate surrounding it is quite different as people's safety often legitimately hangs in the balance. Still, the protection of state secrets can be a justification for censorship of other content, which can be more of a problem.
Objectionable Content: Most common in more democratic countries with little other censorship but widespread across the world, many governments will regulate against "objectionable content" online. Whether related to violence, pornography, or something else, the government deems the content opposed to the public good and restricts its traffic. In some cases, it is good and necessary (for example, the restrictions placed on child pornography and images of abuse). Still, many feel that the restrictions can go too far and put too much power in regulators' hands.
Religious Expression: In countries with a state religion or state-endorsed religion, the censorship of speech and ideas relating to other faiths can happen (unless those other religions are portrayed negatively, of course). Alternatively, countries that suppress most forms of religious worship and will censor most if not all information relating to it.
Educational Information: A government may wish for its population to mostly be in the dark about certain topics and censor any content regarding it. The removal of any information on human rights abuses would qualify here. Governments might also censor certain scientific or health information if the science goes against the official government narrative on the subject.
Copyright Censorship: A trickier topic, given that copyright is generally privately owned, but governments can and have used legislation involving copyright to achieve other ends. Selective enforcement can be the main issue here, and as such, it can be a concerning thing if taken too far or the laws on the books are too strong.
Reverse Censorship: Reverse censorship is a bit of a different topic and practice, but one worth noting and one becoming more common. Effectively, instead of directly removing the truth from the internet and other channels, the government will simply enact a misinformation campaign. It will use its resources to flood social media, forums, and websites with misinformation on the topic, potentially changing public opinion and confusing many people.
How Do Countries Do It?
Censoring the internet is not necessarily an easy task. It requires a constant effort by censors to monitor networks and websites, remove or flag problematic content or posts, or create (and maintain) an infrastructure that allows for easy monitoring of the internet and filtering of content. As seen by the failures of even the world's largest tech corporations to automatically flag and filter content, fully automated systems are some time away.
Yet, in truth, automated systems will do more censorship as time goes on, which is not a good thing. As artificial intelligence technology develops more rapidly, governments and censors will have more advanced tools at their disposal and will be able to collect more information. They can use this information against the public or further political goals.
Here are some of the techniques, levels, and methods a country might use to censor the internet for their benefit:
On a Device Level: In the most extreme examples, governments have more control of the manufacturing processes (or installed apps) of devices sold or distributed in the country. These devices can monitor content and input.
Use of Software for Filtering: If you used a school library computer, you might have noticed some websites are blocked. Some countries might use software that follows the same principle, but on a much broader scale, especially on public computers and devices.
Blocking via ISP: A government might have power over an ISP (running it or actually being it.) Specific sites and content will be blocked on an ISP level.
Blocking Domain Names and Keywords: Government censors might block individual domain names or keywords from appearing.
Pressuring Search Engines and Content Providers: Governments naturally wield a lot of power. They might pressure companies such as Google to remove content from listings or remove a site altogether if possible.
How censoring will look to a user will depend on the country and the reason for censorship. In more open and transparent countries, regulators might give a reason, and you might be redirected to a specific page. In other cases, it will appear as though the content did not exist, or you might get a reroute to a government-controlled site, with information a bit different from the truth of the matter.
Why Might a Country Do It?
A political party or autocrat will employ censorship to stay in power or push a narrative. Many sub-reasons fall into the category, but that is the reason for a lot of censorship. Alternatively, there might be information a government deems dangerous for people to know, perhaps something that is classified. In this case, they might see censorship as the lesser of two evils.
However, some concerns are more legitimate than others, and some governments may try to justify censorship through threats that are oversold or even not there. It is up to people to decide with the information they have available and push for an independent and empowered press to advocate and investigate with their interests in mind.
Most Restrictive Countries
To better showcase how internet censorship might look around the world, here are the five most restrictive countries, at least by our standards. We looked at multiple factors and found that the following countries were the worst offenders:
1. North Korea
If you are in North Korea and reading this, we would first like to congratulate you and also warn you to be extremely careful. We say that because even having internet access in the country is extremely rare, and even then, the government only allows access to a minimal number of sites, all controlled by the state. In truth, due to the country's tight grip over its citizens and the flow of information, we might not even have a complete picture of given how much censorship occurs in the country.
There are some exceptions to the policies, but those exceptions are generally reserved for the political elite or some foreigners. A visitor might not see the same level of censorship as the average citizen.
Notable Censorship Policies:
· Torrents are restricted and banned.
· Pornography and nearly all "objectionable content" is restricted and banned.
· Political speech online is hugely restricted and tightly controlled, with heavy penalties for speaking out against the regime.
· VPNs and similar tools for getting around censorship are restricted and banned.
· News media is restricted, and the state controls the only news content creator.
· Social media, at least social media as the rest of the world knows it, is restricted and banned.
· The internet itself is blocked for the vast majority of the population. There is an intranet of limited websites, but it is watched carefully.
"The Great Firewall of China" is a famous phrase regarding censorship, and China might be the first country you thought of in regards to censorship. This reputation is well-earned, and outside of North Korea, it is easily the most restrictive country for internet usage, even though use is common, often on mobile devices. Keywords and sites are often and easily blocked, and propaganda is rampant online.
The exact situation with online censorship in China is an evolving one, and we cannot precisely determine where the CCP will go next in their efforts. In truth, they will likely be responsive to whatever is perceived as a threat next, and they will act without hesitation.
Notable Censorship Policies:
- Any political media is monitored and censored heavily by the government, and speaking out against it can be penalized heavily. Keywords are often blocked, and references to events that make the Chinese government look bad are not allowed.
- There is social media in China, but access to Western social media is not allowed.
- Pornography is censored and banned.
- Torrenting sites are not restricted or banned, and copyright laws are not enforced (much to the chagrin of copyright holders around the world). However, the government might still monitor torrenting sites and content for any speech or views that go against the government.
- VPNs are not allowed in the country, and most if not all VPN sites are blocked. We would advise anyone planning on using one when traveling to China to download one before their trip to ensure access to the outside.
Russia, at least on the surface, has an incredibly restrictive internet for the average citizen. Speech is officially or unofficially restricted, as is content. Torrents are generally banned or shut down (although the effectiveness of this is varied). Social media is available but heavily controlled.
However, something special about Russia is that it has a highly decentralized internet structure compared to other countries. This makes traffic harder to track and shut down, leading to an increase in cybercriminal activity (think of how many high-profile cyberattacks originate in Russia.) This also means that the government will have a harder time censoring information or turning off networks.
Notable Censorship Policies:
· Pornography and obscene material is a grey area in Russia. Production is illegal, but viewing is not. Some major porn sites are blocked, but many are still available to visit in the country.
· VPNs are technically banned and blocked, but some still work in the country and are often used.
· Social media is monitored and often requires registration. It is hardly a platform for free discourse.
· Torrents are officially banned and often shut down.
· The government heavily restricts news media and political speech.
One of the more restrictive countries in the world over the last half-century, Iran, has a heavily controlled media, heavily controlled public life, and a heavily controlled internet. Thousands of websites are blocked or otherwise censored, and this is significant for a country with a relatively high internet-using population for the region.
Iran is also notable for effectively shutting down the internet in response to protests to slow them down and prevent protesters from communicating easily. The government in Iran will also shut down social media sites or news sites in response to perceived threats and apply pressure to networks and sites that do not clamp down on anti-government sentiment. We see little reason for this trend to change in the future.
Notable Censorship Policies:
· VPNs are restricted and banned. There are government-accepted VPNs, but that defeats the point.
· Pornography and obscene material are banned.
· News media and political speech are heavily censored.
· Torrents are restricted, but they are not shut down. Users may be able to get content in this manner.
· There are some restrictions on social media, but social media is permitted.
One of the most repressive countries in the world when it comes to human rights (even if you do not know about those abuses), Turkmenistan has long suppressed the free flow of information. It continues to do so where the internet is concerned. Journalists and activists are regularly jailed, and the state controls all media to make the President (Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov) look better.
Compared to the rest of the world, not much of the country has internet access to restrict, making suppression all the easier for the government.
Turkmenistan is a bit different in that much content is restricted, but control is not as absolute as in other countries. Torrenting is not as severely restricted as in the above countries. People can more easily use a VPN or other methods to circumvent the censorship that does occur within the country's borders (though they are still restricted). This makes Turkmenistan a concerning place for internet freedom, but a bit more of a hopeful prospect for the future.
Notable Censorship Policies:
· In most cases, social media is restricted and banned (the only loophole perhaps being what counts as social media).
· Torrents are restricted but not entirely banned.
· Pornographic and obscene material is both restricted and banned in the country.
· Political speech is heavily restricted, and certain types are banned. If it goes against the current regime, expect it not to be allowed.
· VPNs and similar tools are restricted or banned, but a bit more available and usable than in more restrictive countries.
While the above are five of the countries engaging in online censorship the most and in the most severe fashions, they are only the tip of the iceberg. Most autocratic governments engage in online censorship, and even most democratic countries have some restrictions on how the internet can be used and what types of content can be online. Governments might restrict access to specific individuals, some types of websites might be highly regulated, and activities may be banned or regulated as a natural extension from real-life regulation.
There is plenty of additional information online about the issue, and we encourage you to seek it out.
What You Can Do About Internet Censorship
While internet censorship matters ultimately come down to how the government is run and what powers they do or do not have over the people, you can do things on an individual level to help and make sure you are not fed misinformation. The exact methods will vary by country, but we recommend the following:
Use Tools to Protect Yourself
There are far more specialized and localized tools to combat internet censorship across the world and many others in development. Here are a few of the most common measures and tools people currently use to circumvent censorship.
Virtual Private Networks (VPNs): The most common tool people use to get around censorship is a Virtual Private Network (VPN). A VPN will allow you to appear as though you are browsing the internet in a different location, including a different country altogether. This means that the censorship tech in your current country might not apply, and you can use the web as though you were in the United States, for example.
TOR: TOR (The Onion Relay) is an anonymous network that will "bounce" a user's signal through a series of relays run by other users, making usage much harder to track. In truth, its effectiveness is very much based on other users. TOR is regularly used by all sorts of people who are less interested in censorship and more interested in illegal activity, making it a more controversial tool. Nonetheless, activists, journalists, and people working against censorship worldwide rely on it to keep their identities safe.
Simple Security Suites: For the average person, people snooping on your activities via malware is the most significant preventable threat. While some security programs can have privacy issues in their own right, you should take measures to protect yourself from hackers, cybercrime, etc.
Better Understand the Issue
Internet censorship, as you can tell by now, is a complicated issue. There is simply too much for a non-expert to understand the entirety of it. Still, you can make efforts to know the basics and the situation as it stands. Find books and articles on the subject (in addition to this one) and understand how it affects matters on a local level. Know who is for and against it, and understand their arguments. The issue does not exist in a vacuum, and neither should you.
Keep Yourself Up to Date
Once you make yourself aware of the nuances surrounding internet censorship, you should try to make sure that you are regularly informed about it and any legislation changes that could increase censorship. Fortunately, watchdog groups keep a close eye out for any legislation that could result in increased censorship, and they will sound the alarm if there is a strong cause for concern. These groups will vary by country and political leaning, but they should be easy to find in most countries.
We also recommend keeping any tools and channels you have to combat censorship up to date as well. What was safe last year might not be safe this year. For example, booting up a five-year-old program might give you a false sense of security. A quick review of your tools every few months can pay dividends on your time and well-being.
Lobby Your Government and Representatives
If you feel strongly about the issue and live in a country with a representative government, activism can go a long way towards getting the word out and perhaps getting changes to the law introduced and passed.
In most cases, contact by letter or phone call is best. Online petitions are easily ignored and nearly always ineffective (the signatures are often not verifiable, and representatives mostly listen to people from their electorate). Try to make your message at least somewhat unique, and make sure that you are focused and clear about what you want. Even if you feel as though you are being ignored, your concerns will be counted in many places. If you feel your concerns fall on deaf ears, you should consider supporting someone who shares your concerns instead.
About Your Privacy Online
The issues of internet censorship and privacy are inarguably intertwined and always will be. It is difficult to censor what is private, and oppressive governments are always interested in learning about dissenters in any way they can. To do so, they will not be afraid to invade your privacy online through various methods.
On your own, there is likely not much you can do to shift the societal standards of privacy and how governments view their citizens' privacy. However, you can protect yourself on an individual level by learning all you can and taking measures to protect your information. Read the following information not only to protect your privacy but to better avoid censorship (now or in the future) through that protection.
What Anyone Can Know About You
Even in the least restrictive of countries, there is nothing to stop a government official (or anyone on earth really) from typing your name into Google or seeing what comes up, or checking to see if you are tagged in social media posts. Think about how easy it is to look up someone else online and what you can infer about them based on their posts, post history, and metadata related to online activity. Even having one close friend in common with someone can let them see a lot of your views and what you are up to.
Governments will have experts or algorithms that can track these things, and they will be able to learn more about you than you thought possible. Social media already makes it easy for everyday people to learn a great deal (some would say too much). Take some time today to look for yourself online, and close down what you do not want others to know. At the very least, it will be an eye-opening experience.
What Governments Can Know About You
If you put something online, your government can learn about it through some combination of laws, powers, etc. The exact standards needed will vary by country, and therefore it is best to know what civil liberties you have online and what those standards are.
In more autocratic regimes, the possibilities seem eerily endless. Devices in North Korea, for example, can and will save browsing history and take screenshots of open apps, allowing for officials to detect if unacceptable usage is occurring, allowing for quick reprisal against the user (and likely their family). If the government controls internet access, seeing records is not difficult for them. While they might not see precisely what you are doing online, they can see what sites you are visiting and often combine that information with other data.
Effectively, it depends on the current level of government power, how willing ISPs and website operators are to cooperate with censors and a few other factors.
What You Allow Others to Know
Expanding a bit upon previous points, much of what is or is not private about you online comes down to what information you make available. A police department looking into public Facebook posts to find evidence of a crime is hardly an invasion of privacy. Any public profile or post online is just that: public. Just because it may seemingly be lost in a sea of commentary does not mean it cannot be searched out.
One general tip we have along these lines is to carefully research and read about the sites you use the most (or even use a couple of times). Read the fine print, check the settings, and know if they cooperate with the government or not.
Other Important Developments
Privacy, much like online censorship, is a continually changing concept that is hard to nail down in the digital age. While we all have our own definition and an idea of what privacy looks like in the real world, the lines are much harder to draw in the digital space. What accounts and information do you have a right to be private? Is online information allowed to be private? What reasonable expectations can you have, and on which sites? The questions are nearly endless, and the debate continues to this day.
Here are a few things you can pay attention to:
The internet came about to its current form relatively quickly. Most governments are not known for their quick legislative reflexes when it comes to digital matters. As we have seen over the last 30 years or so, the internet is a rapidly progressing technology and can disseminate media in ways not thought possible earlier. Many legislators honestly do not understand some of the implications of technology, resulting in a lag in proper ways to address the issue. This leads to confusion, legal grey areas, and additional problems.
Legislation will naturally look different in different countries as it comes to copyright, and further still, there are differences in enforcement. Whatever there is on paper, China is generally laxer than most Western countries, which causes some international friction.
In most cases, we should also note that copyright claims online are not necessarily a form of political censorship. Instead, it is owners protecting their rights and property (as unpopular as that might make them in some cases). It is more the potential selective enforcement of these laws that can cause problems.
Constantly Changing Norms and Governments
Nothing about the internet ever stays the same for long (except that everything changes). That includes censorship, how the government interacts with the internet, and how users interpret and respond to restrictive actions. Governments themselves also change and become more or less restrictive over time depending on the ruling party, evolving social norms or policies, and other factors.
While we simply do not have the time nor space to go over every change or potential change, you should at least know that the methods governments use to spy on and censor internet speech will become more sophisticated (or bold) over time. Equally, the measures to avoid or respond to such efforts will become more sophisticated and adept. It feels like an arms race, but for those wishing to avoid censorship, it is a necessary one.
International Laws and Agreements
While there are ideals of international sovereignty to consider and matters of global influence, today's truth is that the larger and more economically and militarily powerful countries in the world can have a lot of say regarding what is or is not allowed in smaller countries. This can have an enormous effect on media (much like how California's regulations often affect entire industries for the purposes of product safety, or how few movies produced by Hollywood studios are willing to ruffle the feathers of an international audience.)
Sometimes governments might put more restrictive agreements in place. Still, these generally do not affect the internet as of 2021 due to its decentralized nature and the will of countries to retain sovereignty. Whether we will see more substantial restrictions among groups such as the EU remains to be seen.
Censorship is an important issue, and there is far more going into it than can possibly explain in a single article. Most books on the subject do not even have enough room to tackle the topic properly. That being said, we hope that all of the above information (both about specific countries and about internet censorship in general) can help you better understand this vital subject. Wherever you live, try to learn more, stay safe, and get around whatever barriers to knowledge you have to deal with. Remember to stay up to date on your research, and please bookmark this page for future reference.