Censorship by Country: How The Free Web is Being Censored
A lot of folks take access to the internet for granted. It’s so ingrained in our lives that, for many, it’s not just a source of information and entertainment but also a primary means of communication and a source of income.
But there are many places where access to the internet is limited and the content that’s available is heavily censored.
We’re not just talking about employers who lock down their enterprise networks. Entire countries around the world impose strict censorship on their citizens and establish harsh penalties for those who violate internet censorship laws.
In this article we’ll follow the road map to see the escalating pattern, why censorship is happening, and how individuals are using technology to bypass unfair censorship.
Why Countries Are Censoring Material Online
Censorship is nothing new and it’s certainly not specific to internet access or the content available online. Dating back to early historical records we can find incidents where information has been hidden, suppressed, and held back from being accessible to the people.
Socrates stood against the government when it attempted to suppress and censor his philosophies. His refusal to be silenced ultimately led to his death in 399 BC.
While technology and the means of communicating have changed considerably since then, the reasons behind censorship remain fairly similar. This is especially true where government censorship takes place. But why would they impose censorship at all?
Most incidents of censorship are driven by one or more common efforts:
- To impose traditional social values
- To impose religious ideals
- To maintain political stability
- To maintain national security
Ultimately, countries around the world are blocking content they deem inappropriate or “objectionable.” Unfortunately, the content they deem inappropriate isn’t just pornography and gambling. It ranges from news and journalism to entire social networks and educational resources like Wikipedia.
For example, thousands took to the streets in a protest of Hosni Mubarak and his autocratic rule in 2011.
When it was found that the majority of the protests were organized and driven by social media, the Egyptian government stepped in. Rather than placing blocks on using specific social channels, all telecoms were ordered to shut down their internet services in an attempt to maintain political stability, resulting in a complete blackout of the internet.
Which Countries Have the Strictest Censorship
While Egypt’s censorship was a direct response to an incident, numerous other countries have had long-standing censorship in place.
Censorship in North Korea is considered to be among the strictest in the world. The global internet is predominantly locked down, with only a select few officials given free access to the internet as we know it. Some universities are allowed computers but even then all traffic is closely monitored.
Despite it being only a small percentage of citizens who could access the internet in North Korea, the government has constructed its own intranet to replace the web. That intranet is heavily filtered by the Korea Computer Center to maintain strict control over what can be accessed by the people.
To maintain further control of what its citizens see and hear from the outside world, the government of North Korea also controls every media outlet in the country. While not a great deal is known about specific consequences related to accessing the internet, past incidents where citizens fail to follow strict guidelines set forth by the Worker’s Party of Korea can lead to imprisonment, forced labor, and death. There are other documented cases of human rights abuses that take place as a result of violating the laws and strict controls of the North Korean government.
Iran’s approach to censorship is in a similar vein to North Korea. While far more citizens have internet access (around 56 million or 70% of the population), a substantial number of websites are blocked with additional controls in place to monitor and regulate what is being viewed.
According to a 2017 report, tens of thousands of websites are blocked ranging from foreign news outlets, human rights organizations, political groups with opposing views, popular blogging platforms like WordPress, as well as social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.
Those who do operate blogging sites and other websites must register with the Ministry of Art and Culture. Anyone caught posting content critical of the government and contrary to religious beliefs is prosecuted and jailed. Allegedly the persecution can extend to the family of dissidents, including jail time and loss of work.
The government uses a very strict filter that handles all traffic passing through Iranian networks. According to a detailed research study shared by The Washington Post, “Iranian Internet is also configured to discourage the use of certain encrypted protocols. Web traffic is allowed through at full speed. Traffic that uses the encrypted SSH protocol, which can be used to “tunnel” other types of traffic out of the country, run at less than 20 percent of the network’s full speed. Traffic the Iranian firewall doesn’t recognize is throttled even more dramatically, and gets cut off altogether after about 60 seconds.”
Iran also uses content filters that block specific keywords in sites, but in the above study it was found that numerous websites outside of the “adult” category were blocked, including a substantial number of sites listed under art, society, and news.
The Pakistan government has continued to intensify censorship as the internet has grown to become a common resource among people around the world. It’s primary aim with censorship has been to repress political freedom while attempting to isolate and protect religious and cultural views.
Its approach to censorship is less restrictive on the sites that can be viewed. Instead, the government closely monitors the activity of its citizens. One of the key practices is to reduce anonymity online in order to tightly monitor and control what is said online. Social media accounts are linked to mobile numbers, and mobile devices are registered via fingerprint.
In May of 2017, Pakistan used this approach to enact a crackdown on social media users making politically driven anti-army posts. Hundreds of accounts were investigated resulting in multiple arrests.
Saudi Arabia takes a restrictive approach to internet content as a means of protecting and maintaining religious beliefs. More specifically, the government has established a process by which all internet traffic passes through a local proxy farm. This system uses a content filter to block specific types of content while also blocking sites that contain immoral content (pornography and pro-LGBT) or content that speaks out against Islam.
Other steps toward strict censorship include the 2007 Anti-Cyber Crime Law. This royal decree makes it a crime to produce, possess, distribute, transmit, or store content or a program that involves gambling, human trafficking, immoral content, or anything deemed to be against Islam, public morals, or public order.
The Saudi government blocked access to Google Translate and Wikipedia in 2006, began requiring bloggers and journalists to register in 2011, and in 2014 introduced regulations for companies producing content on YouTube.
Violation of the censorship decrees in Saudi Arabia carries a punishment of five years in prison. Bloggers and journalists also report restrictions on work as well as restrictions in other areas of their life. One case documents more brutal punishments including flogging, hefty fines, and exaggerated prison terms.
Raif Badawi, an activist and founder of a website for political and social debate, was arrested in 2012 and sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for “insulting Islam through electronic channels.”
In the image above, taken in 2017, activists continue to call for his release.
China’s censorship is one of the most widely known, often referred to as The Great Firewall. This massive undertaking uses a combination of people as well as software and technology to block access and limit the spread of information. By blocking IPs, limiting access, filtering search results, erasing content, and rerouting search and site queries to websites that are pro-China.
China’s censoring technology is so advanced it can even search new web pages and restrict access in real time.
The government firmly believes there is no distinction between the virtual world and the real world. Specifically “both should reflect the same political values, ideals, and standards,” according to a report from The Guardian. In short, the government seeks to control and limit content, prevent the spread of information it finds dangerous while targeting individuals who might challenge the authority of the Communist party.
China has a number of well-documented regulations, part of which declares activities and information (creating, replicating, retrieving, or transmitting) that are not permitted on the internet and which will result in punishment. This includes:
- Inciting to resist or breaking the Constitution or laws or the implementation of administrative regulations;
- Inciting to overthrow the government or the socialist system;
- Inciting division of the country, harming national unification;
- Inciting hatred or discrimination among nationalities or harming the unity of the nationalities;
- Making falsehoods or distorting the truth, spreading rumors, destroying the order of society;
- Promoting feudal superstitions, sexually suggestive material, gambling, violence, murder;
- Terrorism or inciting others to criminal activity; openly insulting other people or distorting the truth to slander people;
- Injuring the reputation of state organizations;
- Other activities against the Constitution, laws or administrative regulations
China’s restrictions grow as technology continues to advance. For example, in 2017 several new restrictions were put in place including China convincing Apple to remove numerous VPN apps from the local app store. China also banned the streaming of dramatic video content posted without permits, a requirement for chat users to register with logs kept of group chats, and forcing chat group providers to establish a credit scoring system.
While the consequences for violating China’s censorship may not be as brutal as places like North Korea, the enforcement is strict. Over the last 16 months, China fined several of the country’s largest technology firms and also consistently fines individual citizens who attempt to circumvent content filters and censorship online.
Vietnam follows in the looming shadow and footsteps as the communist country works to ensure no anti-government or anti-party contest is consumers or shared by its citizens.
In 2013, the BBC reported new internet restrictions taking effect under Decree 72. This asserts that citizens may not use social media channels or blogs to share news articles. Instead, activity is only limited to discussing and sharing personal information.
The new law requires foreign internet companies to keep servers local inside Vietnam and, for users, prohibits the publication and sharing of any material that opposes the Vietnamese government or is considered a harm to national security.
With over 30 million internet users it may seem difficult to monitor and control the activity of its citizens, but Vietnam consistently punishes those who violate its strict regulations on internet use. In the months following the deployment of Decree 72 Vietnam was at the top of the list “enemies of the internet”, having one of the highest numbers of bloggers and dissidents jailed compared to other countries with strict censorship in place.
In 2012, Russia passed a Restriction Bill into federal law that gave the government the right to block any kind of content it deemed to be detrimental to its citizens. The bill cites specific types of content including websites or content that advocate drug use/abuse, child pornography, extremism, and suicide.
The Restriction Bill also includes verbiage for “any other information the government believes detrimental to the well-being of its citizens.”
The issue that many critics have with this form of censorship is the wording. The Restriction Bill leaves a lot of gray area since it comes down to what the government deems detrimental – and that is highly subjective. Based on the bill, the government has already taken measures to more tightly monitor internet use among citizens.
For example, in 2014, Russia enacted a new law that required social media sites to store data on Russian citizens who used the sites for a period of 6 months. In 2016, When the Russian government discovered that LinkedIn was used by anti-Putin activists to organize protests the country moved to have the entire website blocked.
According to Reuters, Putin, an ex-KGB officer who has called the Internet a “CIA project”, denied he was restricting web freedoms, saying his main concern was protecting children from indecent content. Russia has also called on Twitter to block dozens of individual user accounts after a Twitter executive met the head of Russia’s communications. A Twitter spokesperson later commented they had not agreed to block any accounts in Russia.
While Russian officials assert these laws are designed for the protection of the state and with privacy concerns in mind, critics see them as a means of surveillance, and as a way for authorities to target protesters, dissidents, and opposition leaders.
Earlier this year, Russian lawmakers adopted a final draft of legislation that would levy fines against those who violate or circumvent its internet censorship laws.
According to the bill, individuals who break the law will face fines as high as 5,000 rubles ($80), officials will face fines as high as 50,000 rubles ($800), and legal entities could be fined as much as 700,000 rubles ($11,230). Internet search engines will also be required to connect to the Federal State Information System, which will list the websites banned in Russia. Failure to connect to this system can result in fines as high as 300,000 rubles ($4,800)
How Countries Are Blocking Content
The list of countries censoring internet content and access is a short one. In truth, censorship exists in some form in almost every country in the world. Even the United States has laws that impact the kind of information that accessible online.
While the United States is fairly liberal when it comes to accessible content, Reporters without Borders has compiled an extensive list of the countries with the strictest censorship policies or “Enemies of the Internet” – and each country has a different approach to censorship.
In fact, a 2017 report of Freedom on the Net shows that 49 of the 65 countries measured engage in censorship to some extent, with many censoring or blocking specific topics.
So, how exactly are these companies blocking content?
DNS filtering and redirects
If a country has the authority to control Domain Name System (DNS) servers then they have the ability to alter the registry in order to block content they deem to be illicit. By adjusting or eliminating a registry specific websites can be made invisible to browsers, resulting in the user seeing a 404 error or a failure to resolve the host.
IP address blocking
In some locations, the government exerts control over the ISP(s) available within the region, or the ISP is owned by the government. We see this taking place in North Korea and China is even turning its ISPs into internet police as many of China’s internet service providers are state-owned.
When a government has control of an ISP it can create a list of IP address that it chooses to block. When browsers attempt to connect to those websites a check is made against the list of blocked IP addresses. If there’s a match with a blocked IP address, the connection is denied.
Many sites exist on a shared server, where the website itself does not have a static, designated IP address. Instead, the server has an IP address shared by all the sites on a specific server. If a shared server IP is blocked, then none of the sites on that server can be accessed.
Since the IP addresses of servers typically don’t change, and IPs are publicly available, this is one of the most common methods used for geo-blocking content and specific sites.
When a government body hasn’t taken the steps to block specific domains or IP addresses, they typically resort to content filtering. China’s real-time filtering, and the content filters used by other governments mentioned above are prime examples.
In the study on Iran’s censorship, researchers found extensive content filters at play. With these filters, authorities block access to sites when specific keywords and keyword strings exist in the URL or domain name. These filters can also capture and block specific queries from taking place (so no information is returned), can scan the content of sites to block access to “objectionable content”, and can even scan individual file names to prevent content from being viewed.
One phase of the study on Iran’s censorship had researchers place a file called “sex.html” on an American server. While the file was publicly visible with other connections, when that file was searched for using access from within Iran it was not discoverable.
Deep packet inspection
Some authorities utilize deep packet inspection as an advanced form of censorship. This approach inspects the metadata of packets being sent between servers in order to identify the type of traffic being sent.
This is typically used to identify how users are connecting, often as a means of determining if a user is trying to access content via proxies or a virtual private network (VPN). China and Iran both use deep packet inspection in an attempt to detect VPN users.
As previously mentioned for Iran, if the network detects encrypted protocols then speeds throttled to 20% or less of the already limited bandwidth available to citizens. If the traffic isn’t recognized, then speeds are reduced even further.
How People Are Getting Around Internet Censorship
Censorship imposed by government authorities, and even the fear of punishment, isn’t necessarily stopping citizens from access the web. While it’s not always easy to bypass sophisticated censorship in some countries, tools like VPNs give users a way to circumvent censorship and gain access to content and websites otherwise prohibited within their country.
VPN’s create encrypted funnels between the user’s computer and the VPN server, typically located in a region outside of the country where censorship takes place. This unlocks otherwise blocked content, and because the data is both encrypted and tunneling through secondary servers, the user remains anonymous.
Once a user is connected through a top VPN, like ExpressVPN, they can access any other content and service available on the world wide web including otherwise-blocked websites, social media, instant messengers, email. Users have even used VPNs to access content on platforms like Netflix that is otherwise blocked or not available in their region.
Tor bridges are another means of bypassing sophisticated censorship. When ISP blocks are in place for Tor’s public network, a bridge can be established which transforms the communication between a Tor client and a bridge. This makes the traffic look like standard traffic rather than encrypted traffic. The downside is that a Tor bridge is considerably more difficult to establish and tend to run slower, but they are an option for bypassing censorship.
Why VPN Is Ideal?
VPNs are an idea solution because while many countries have restrictions and requirements for using VPNs, they aren’t typically able to ban them. This is due to the fact that VPNs are critical for business.
Technology has made it easy for organizations to operate on a global level, with representatives and remote workers operating abroad. VPNs allow employees to connect securely to corporate networks from home, while traveling, or via offices located in different countries.
This has made it difficult for other countries to crack down on VPN use, so the governments typically target the organization providing the VPN access to private users rather than the individual VPN user.
While China has made an effort to block specific VPN providers, including having them removed from Apple’s app store, there are still apps available that allow even mobile users the ability to access otherwise-censored content.
Most importantly, VPN services typically exist and route traffic through multiple servers often located in countries with some of the strongest data-protection laws (like Canada as well as Switzerland and other some other countries in the EU) making it incredibly difficult for traffic to be intercepted. It’s common for VPN services to also operate no-log policies, so there’s typically no log kept of user activity.
It’s important to note that there are countless free VPN services available, but you get what you pay for. Free VPNs typically have much lower bandwidth available and won’t offer the same premium services available from a trusted, paid, VPN service provider.
Free VPNs also don’t have the international server coverage of a paid service, like ExpressVPN which offers over 2,000 servers in 94 countries to its paid members. You can read more about ExpressVPN in our expert review.
In short; a free VPN might save you a few dollars each month but there’s no guarantee of data protection, security, or reliability.
As technology continues to make data and information easier to access on the web, certain countries continue to enact new censorship laws for the purpose of protecting national security, maintaining political stability, upholding religious beliefs, and protecting religious ideals. Unfortunately, their approaches typically result in blanket censorship the impacts free speech and blocks people from accessing truly educational content and helpful resources that many of us take for granted.
For people living in one of these regions, or those traveling to a location under strict censorship laws, tools like a VPN play a vital role in keeping information accessible and the internet freely open.