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Everything You Need to Know About Internet Censorship and How It Impacts You

Hey there! Our lives are more connected to the internet than ever before. But depending on where you live, you may find some parts of the web are restricted or even blocked entirely. This content filtering, known as internet censorship, is an important issue affecting millions of internet users across the globe.

In this guide, I‘ll explain what internet censorship is, who it impacts, and how it works. You‘ll learn about different types of censorship, where it‘s most prevalent, and why it‘s concerning. I‘ll also cover ways people try to get around censorship through tools like VPNs.

My goal is to provide an in-depth look at internet censorship so you can stay informed and protect your online freedom. Let‘s dive in!

What is Internet Censorship Exactly?

Internet censorship means controlling what information people can publish, access, and view online. It involves deliberately limiting or suppressing certain types of content and communication.

According to data from Freedom House, global internet freedom has declined for the past 11 years straight. Why? Governments keep introducing new laws and technologies enabling increased filtering, monitoring, and removal of online material.

Censorship can take many forms:

  • Blocking websites – Authorities block access to targeted sites by blacklisting URLs and IP addresses. All requests get automatically blocked.
  • Filtering search engines – Google and other search engines are forced to remove links to prohibited sites from results for users in censored regions.
  • Removing social media content – Platforms like Facebook and Twitter take down posts and accounts based on local laws and content moderation policies.
  • Throttling speeds – Internet service providers deliberately slow connection speeds for specific services and sites, making them frustrating to use.
  • Shutting down access entirely – During social unrest, regimes throttled or even completely cut internet connectivity to suppress organizing and information sharing.

What kind of material gets censored? It depends on the country, but common targets include:

  • Political dissent and protests
  • Criticism of the government
  • Independent news sources
  • Religious content
  • LGBTQ sites and content
  • Sexual and explicit material
  • Web tools that bypass censorship

Authoritarian states tend to impose the harshest restrictions that entrench their power. But democracies also censor some content, such as child sexual abuse imagery, which is universally criminalized.

Who Is Impacted by Internet Censorship?

Censorship affects more than just the specific content being blocked. Limiting access to information and communication online impacts many groups:

General Public

When people lack free and open access to the internet, it infringes on their civil liberties. Censorship especially silences already marginalized groups, preventing them from participating fully in public discourse.

Activists & Journalists

Reporters and activists rely on the internet to conduct research, communicate securely, organize protests, and share truth with the world. Censorship greatly hinders these efforts.

Businesses

Tech firms may avoid expanding into highly censored countries where their sites and services will be limited. Local startups also face burdens adapting products for their market. China‘s censorship led Google to withdraw from the country in 2010.

Minors

Parents use tools like parental controls to filter inappropriate content for minors. However, broader censorship gives young people an incomplete view of the world.

Governments

Excessive censorship can undermine a regime‘s legitimacy domestically and internationally. However, authoritarian governments also use censorship to maintain power.

Some argue censorship helps limit dangerous or illegal content like child sexual exploitation, revenge porn, terrorist propaganda, and more. But critics contend censorship is an unethical method that circumvents judicial processes. Content moderation remains hotly debated.

What Does Internet Censorship Look Like Around the World?

The type and degree of censorship varies extensively across different countries:

China

China has an advanced, multi-layered censorship system known informally as The Great Firewall. Beyond blocking websites, China uses deep packet inspection to filter internet traffic combined with AI to monitor social media. Chinese authorities block:

  • All major Western social media sites and apps like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, WhatsApp
  • Foreign news outlets like BBC, New York Times, Bloomberg
  • Search terms and discussions related to dissent, protests, and other taboo topics

Government cybersecurity analysts closely track posts on popular domestic platforms like Weibo, directing companies to quickly remove content deemed illegal or inappropriate. Violations can lead to big fines or loss of license to operate.

Russia

Under Vladimir Putin, Russia dramatically expanded internet censorship and surveillance. A 2019 law enabled authorities to block access to prohibited sites like those sharing "fake news" or expressing dissent. When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the Kremlin restricted tools like Facebook, Twitter, and independent news outlets.

By June 2022, Russia blocked over 43,000 sites and services according to monitoring group Roskomsvoboda. Russia also pressures search engines and social networks to remove content it disagrees with under "false information" laws.

India

As the world‘s largest democracy, India generally has moderate internet censorship. However, the government does impose occasional regional blackouts and social media blocks.

In 2020, India repeatedly shut down internet services in Delhi as farmers protested agriculture reforms. Authorities argued this was necessary to "maintain public safety." The government also instructed social networks to delete posts related to the protests and accounts it accused of inciting violence.

United Kingdom

The UK imposes targeted censorship such as the blocks on terrorism, child sex abuse, and violent extremist content mandated by the Digital Economy Act 2017. Copyright violations also result in site blocking.

However, censorship in the UK remains relatively limited compared to more authoritarian regimes. The UK does not typically block political speech or social media. In 2021, Freedom House ranked the UK fifth globally for internet freedom.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia heavily censors political dissent, pornography, LGBTQ sites, dating services, and content related to alcohol and drugs. The kingdom uses technology from US company Sandvine for filtering and blocking. Hundreds of thousands of sites are blocked.

Saudi Arabia faced criticism for censoring discussions and news coverage surrounding Jamal Khashoggi’s murder in 2018 since the perpetrators had ties to the government. The regime relies on censorship to suppress dissent.

North Korea

North Korea has the most extreme internet censorship globally. Only political elites and university students have internet access at all, and they can only visit state-approved domestic sites. Most citizens have no internet access. The full global internet remains inaccessible to average North Koreans.

By The Numbers: Statistics on Internet Censorship

  • At least 53 countries around the world engaged in substantial internet censorship in 2021 according to Freedom House. This accounts for 28% of the world‘s internet users.
  • China accounts for nearly half of all censored internet users worldwide as over 720 million Chinese citizens faced restrictions.
  • Russia stands as the country that censored the most additional websites in 2022 – over 43,000 sites blocked compared to just 2,700 at the end of 2019.
  • The Tor Project reported a 1,529% increase in daily Tor Browser users in Russia in March 2022 after censorship ramped up during the invasion of Ukraine.
  • Egypt and Ethiopia suffered the largest internet shutdowns in 2020 and 2021 respectively, with communications blocked for a combined 5,500+ hours.
  • VPN usage in India increased by 215% when the government temporarily banned TikTok and other Chinese apps in mid-2020.

These statistics demonstrate the massive scale and growth of global internet censorship. The trend persists across democratic and authoritarian states both large and small.

Why Is Internet Censorship Problematic?

Internet censorship may aim to address harms but itself causes significant issues when taken too far:

Infringes on Free Speech

Censorship inherently violates the UN‘s Universal Declaration of Human Rights protecting free expression. When people cannot freely publish or hear others‘ opinions, it harms open discourse vital to democracies.

Conceals Government Wrongdoing

Authoritarians often censor political dissent, protests, corruption leaks, and criticism in general to suppress opposition and remain in power. This prevents accountability.

Slows Innovation and Growth

When tech companies pull out of heavily censored countries, it costs local jobs, competition, innovation, and economic progress. China‘s censorship triggered Google to withdraw its search engine from the country in 2010, for example.

Distorts Public Discourse

People cannot have fully informed, nuanced debates when censorship skews the information environment and attitudes cannot be changed through open dialogue.

Circumvents Judicial Process

Censors act as judge and jury in blocking content they subjectively deem illegal or inappropriate without trials. Content takedowns should require proper legal procedures.

Promotes Self-Censorship

When censorship is pervasive, individuals and media silence themselves beyond what is officially banned to avoid repercussions. China‘s censorship nurtures a strong self-censorship culture according to Reporters Without Borders.

Obstructs Crisis Response

Governments blocking social media and communication channels during protests, natural disasters, and other crises dangerously hampers information flows. This worsens public safety outcomes.

Normalizes Government Overreach

The more people accept censorship as normal, the more likely authoritarian mission creep, with authorities slowly introducing additional limitations over time.

Internet censorship may have valid uses like combating child exploitation, but comprehensive controls often undermine human rights and modernization.

How Can You Bypass Internet Censorship?

For those facing heavy censorship, options exist to access and share blocked content:

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs)

VPNs encrypt your internet traffic and route it through servers abroad to bypass geolocation blocks. VPNs also change your IP address to mask your identity and evade surveillance. I recommend ExpressVPN and NordVPN which offer fast connections, top-notch encryption, and zero log policies.

Proxy Servers

Proxy servers reroute your web traffic, concealing your IP address and enabling access to banned sites. Proxies offer more privacy than normal browsing but are slower than VPNs and do not encrypt data. Still a handy censorship circumvention tool for basic needs. Popular proxies include Hidester and GeoSurf.

Tor Browser

The Tor network routes traffic through thousands of relay servers to anonymize your identity and circumvent censorship. Tor provides robust privacy protections but speeds are slow. Tor remains a vital tool for activists, whistleblowers, and journalists worldwide.

Peer-to-Peer Networks

Decentralized peer-to-peer systems allow users to directly share censored information across connected devices. Because there is no central server, P2P data distribution cannot be easily blocked. Freenet offers censorship-resistant publishing and communication tools.

Mirror Websites

Duplicating activist, protest, or dissent websites on different URLs and hosts lets users access copies if the original site gets blocked. Hundreds of mirror sites appeared during Arab Spring protests.

However, some circumvention tools also enable accessing clearly unethical or dangerous content. And repressive regimes may punish residents for using censorship avoidance tools. Carefully evaluate the benefits and risks before use.

Key Takeaways on Internet Censorship

After reading this guide, you should now understand:

  • What is censored – Content related to dissent, news, sexuality, politics, web tools, and more face censorship depending on the country.
  • How it works – Through methods like blocklists, filters, takedowns, throttling networks, and shutting down access.
  • Who is impacted – General public, activists, businesses, minors, and governments themselves all face limitations from censorship.
  • Where it‘s most prevalent – China, Russia, and the Middle East see the harshest restrictions, while democracies have minimal censorship.
  • Why it‘s problematic – It violates free speech, conceals wrongdoing, slows economies, distorts discourse, and normalizes overreach.
  • How to bypass restrictions – Using VPNs, proxies, Tor, and other circumvention tools enable accessing blocked content.

I hope this guide provided a helpful overview explaining the most important aspects of internet censorship. Please let me know if you have any other questions! I‘m happy to discuss this crucial issue further.

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Streamr Go

StreamrGo is always about privacy, specifically protecting your privacy online by increasing security and better standard privacy practices.