It’s becoming increasingly common for governments worldwide to tighten their control over the internet. They’re putting measures in place to limit online access and keep a close eye on what people are doing. This could mean anything from restricting social media to flat-out blocking certain websites.
For folks in these countries, tools like VPNs can sometimes offer a way to bypass these restrictions and access content that’s otherwise off-limits. But here’s the catch: governments are actively going after these solutions, as seen in the recent suppression of major VPN services for India. So, breaking through these digital barriers is getting tougher by the day.
In this article, we’re going to dig into the different tactics governments use to censor the internet. Plus, we’ll take a closer look at the countries where internet freedom is most restricted and why is that the case.
What Exactly is Internet Censorship?
By definition, internet censorship encompasses deliberate control, suppression, or regulation of what can be accessed, published, or viewed on the internet. This control is often exercised by governments, organizations, or internet service providers, either through legal regulations or technological measures. The most widely used ones include:
- Website blocking. Governments or organizations restrict access to specific websites by blocking their URLs or IP addresses. This method prevents all users within a specific region from accessing the content hosted on those sites.
- Deep Packet Inspection. DPI (for short) allows authorities to inspect and analyze the data packets passing through a network. It enables them to identify and block specific types of traffic, such as certain applications or programs.
- State Surveillance. Utilizing advanced technologies to systematically observe and scrutinize citizens’ online behaviors, communications, and activities. Best example – China’s implementation of a social credit system, used to extensively monitor individuals’ internet usage patterns.
- Content filtering. Filtering mechanisms are used to control the flow of information users can access online. This involves using software to monitor and block certain keywords, phrases, or types of content deemed “undesirable” or “damaging.”
- Internet blackouts. This involves deliberately suspending internet connectivity or overall access, mostly during times of social unrest, political turmoil, or sensitive events like elections.
Every country handles this differently – some are stricter and may use more than one of the aforementioned tactics, while others are more open with fewer or softer restrictions.
World’s Most Censored Countries
Across different regions, internet censorship manifests in diverse forms and combinations, with some countries exhibiting particularly stringent control over online information flow. Here are insights into five of the most heavily censored countries and the mechanisms behind their restrictive online environments:
China, often associated with the “Great Firewall,” operates one of the most sophisticated and comprehensive censorship machines globally. The government utilizes a combination of legislative measures and advanced technology to control almost everything online. The Great Firewall blocks access to numerous foreign websites, including social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, while also monitoring and censoring domestic online discussions that challenge the ruling Communist Party’s narratives.
In North Korea, the internet is heavily restricted in almost all ways possible, with access available only to a select few within the government and elite circles. The populace is provided with an intranet called Kwangmyong, isolated from the global internet and tightly controlled to prevent user exposure to external information deemed threatening to the current regime.
While more Western than China or North Korea, Russia is catching up with them in the internet censorship race, especially in recent years. In this case, it’s enforced mostly through laws targeting online dissent and opposition. The government has also imposed restrictions on social media, messaging apps, and independent news outlets. Primary aim: stifle political opposition and control the narrative by penalizing those who criticize the government or express dissenting views online.
Iran employs a multifaceted approach to online censorship, combining technological measures with strict legal regulations. The government blocks access to numerous websites and platforms, censoring content that challenges religious or political ideologies. Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are among the restricted sites, prompting many Iranians to use VPNs to bypass these limitations.
Saudi Arabia enforces strict internet censorship primarily to uphold conservative religious values and maintain political control. The government blocks access to websites containing content deemed contrary to Islamic principles or critical of the ruling monarchy. The biggest social media platforms and news outlets are heavily monitored, and any dissenting voices risk severe repercussions.
How to avoid online censorship
Despite the prevalence of internet censorship, both individuals and organizations have quite a few ways to bypass these restrictions and access information freely. In fact, there are several tools that help people evade prevalent online censorship on a daily basis. The 4 most effective ones include:
- Virtual Private Networks. VPNs create encrypted tunnels between the user’s device and a server located elsewhere, masking the user’s IP address and encrypting internet traffic. This allows users to bypass censorship by accessing the internet through the VPN server, making it appear as though they are connecting from a different location.
- Tor browser. Tor routes internet traffic through a global network of volunteer-operated servers, encrypting data and bouncing it through various relays. It helps users bypass censorship by hiding their online activities from surveillance and censorship.
- Proxy servers. Proxy servers act as intermediaries between users and the internet. They facilitate access to blocked content by fetching data from restricted websites on behalf of the user. The website sees requests coming from the proxy server rather than the user’s device.
- Decentralized platforms. Platforms built on decentralized technologies, like blockchain, aim to create censorship-resistant spaces. They distribute content across a network of nodes, making it difficult for authorities to control or take down information.
Internet censorship remains a complex issue with profound implications for freedom of expression and access to information. While governments continue to tighten their grip on online content, the pursuit of ways to circumvent these restrictions persists, underlining the enduring quest for an open and free internet.