Simply speaking, all countries censor the internet to some extent, mainly to prevent the spread of child pornography. However, such censorship attempts by governments can get out of control. Here is a list of countries with controversial internet censorship practices that directly or indirectly violate right to privacy and freedom of information:
The United States
Free speech and right to information is explicitly spelled out in the Bill of Rights of the United States. The U.S. government openly advocates freedom of speech online as well. However, recent events have exposed just how not free the country’s internet is. The U.S. government routinely blocks websites, or asks other websites to take down content for dubious reasons, citing national security or copyright violations. Internet censorship in the U.S. has gone beyond what’s actually legal, and the rights group Reporters Without Borders now lists the U.S. as an Enemy of the Internet. In addition to censorship, whistleblowers have exposed mass government surveillance conducted on internet users in the country as well.
Saudi Arabia is one of the most censored countries on the planet. The Gulf nation does not protect individual right to free speech or privacy offline, and it certainly does not online either. The Saudi government strictly censors the internet for content that may violate national security or the “Islamic values” of the country. Websites that contain any and all sexual material, even sex education content, will be taken offline. Online content that may seem to promote so-called Western values, seen as pro-American or anti-Saudi will be blocked. Sites that criticize Islam are filtered without a second thought, and the webmasters could face criminal charges in courts.
Russia, on paper, has internet censorship laws to protect children from perceivably harmful material. In real life, censorship laws are largely used to stifle dissenting political voices, crush supposedly anti-Russian or pro-American views, or to remove anything that might seem to threaten the national security of the country. National security is broadly defined in practice. Online news sites or blogs that may expose government corruption may be taken offline citing national security concerns. Russia is also an Enemy of the Internet, as categorized by Reporters Without Borders. Censorship controls are routinely misused by public officials to restrict access to information that might expose the government in a bad light. Russia is also tightening internet controls to spread extremist propaganda.
Internet censorship in China is notorious. All online traffic going inside the country must go through the Great Firewall, a series of censorship controls that the government employs to block any website, any time. China may delete web content, take sites offline, and even arrest the owners for content that may not adhere to the status quo. China is extremely strict when it comes to spread of information, especially of those with dissenting political views. China is also known to block all content relating to sensitive political issues. For example, China blocked all content relating to the Tiananmen Square massacre as it unfolded. The country has also blocked sites like Twitter that promote free speech.
Internet censorship in India is arbitrary. There isn’t a law that strictly regulates internet censorship, so state and federal authorities may block access to online content as they see fit. India can take down sites, block access, or delete content for defamation, criminal activities, copyright violations, threats to national security, or content that supposedly harms children. Indian ISPs must take action against online content within 36 hours after receiving an official request. In recent years, the Indian Supreme Court has taken steps to protect freedom of speech online and limit government censorship that obstructs freedom to information. However, with the threat of terrorism looming, the Indian government does not seem to be lessening its tight grip on the internet.
Iran spends a considerable amount of the country’s budget on censoring the internet. The country is known to have one of the longest blacklists of banned sites. The majority of the country’s internet traffic passes through a central authority, which considerably slows down connections, but allows the government to monitor sites. Iran mainly censors pornography and sexually explicit material. Even arts or culture sites may get censored if they contain un-Islamic or pro-Western content. Popular U.S.-based sites such as Twitter and Facebook are blocked in Iran, which is a measure taken by the government to stifle free speech.
Government-backed internet censorship in Vietnam is pervasive and malicious. Websites are routinely blocked to limit citizens’ access to freedom of speech, expression, and information, according to Committee to Protect Journalists. Internet use is restricted in the country as well. Vietnam not only takes down sites that may contain politically opposing viewpoints, but it is known to jail bloggers for criticizing the government as well. Websites, especially blogs, are heavily monitored. Foreign sites are often blocked if they promote content that the ruling party finds offensive. In Vietnam, it’s punishable by law to post social media posts critical of the government.
Singapore is the only developed country in Southeast Asia. Regardless, the government severely limits freedom of speech, expression, and assembly. These restrictions apply to the internet as well. Singapore mainly blocks content relating to pornography (not limited to child pornography), online piracy, and illegal drug use. Some dating sites, like Ashley Madison, can also get blocked. In addition, the country pervasively censored online content relating to political issues. These issues may range from hate speech to defamation. Foreign nationals have reportedly been arrested for social media rants that the government finds offensive. Since 2013, Singapore requires a website license, which is largely seen as a move to stifle political dissent.
The British have long enjoyed a largely censorship-free internet. However, government censorship of the internet and monitoring has increased for various political and social reasons. In recent years, the UK, along with several other European nations, has tightened the grip on internet traffic in order to block websites that contain jihadist propaganda. However, the government has also taken steps to filter other content, namely porn. Former Prime Minister David Cameron even proposed a porn filter, widely mocked and criticized as a gateway to block other content, such as dissenting voices, as well. Britain frequently cites national security and protecting minors as the reasons for censoring websites.
How Can I Bypass Censorship Restrictions?
Censorship restrictions are arbitrary, and they can prevent netizens of accessing news sites, watching videos and legitimately browsing the internet. However, web users do not necessarily have to put up with unjustified censorship rules. Government censorship filters can easily by bypassed using a virtual private network, commonly referred to as a VPN.
A VPN basically masks a user’s IP address, so ISPs or government surveillance programs cannot trace the connection. Most websites are blocked based on the location of the user. For example, if you want to access Twitter from China, you will not be able to because your IP address is Chinese. If you can trick the system to think that your IP address originates from Australia, for example, you can access Twitter, as the site is not blocked in Australia. Essentially, a VPN can create a virtual nationality for you, so you can access content blocked by your government for various reasons.
VPNs can also get you through geo-blocks imposed by certain websites. Netflix, for example, prevents streaming outside the United States. If you use a VPN, you can bypass Netflix geo-blocks easily. VPNs also make internet connections highly secure. If you are an American netizen, you can avoid NSA snooping by using a VPN. Likewise, if you are a Vietnamese political blogger, you can avoid arrest by using a VPN to mask your real IP address.
VPNs offer high speeds, security, and a surefire way to bypass censorship filters. Anyone can purchase a VPN package, which often charges a small amount per month per subscriber. Unlike Tor, VPNs do not slow down computers, either.
The Present and Future of Online Censorship
As you can see from the country list above, internet censorship is widespread, even in countries like the United States that have long standing traditions of protecting free speech. Regular netizens online can expect censorship controls to get worse in the future.
Internet censorship is largely a murky arena. The practice in reality does not often respect the laws on paper, if any. Governments may cite vague reasons such as national security and protecting minors as the reason for blocking sites. In reality, the reason is most likely to be due to a need to stifle an opposing view. Governments use censorship controls to stifle political dissent. Also, censorship controls help certain governments to keep corruption scandals, official mishaps, and political news under wraps.
Internet was initially conceived to be a place of freedom, especially from government and social controls. Censorship threatens that freedom, when not conducted for legitimate reasons such as preventing the spread of child pornography. Censorship also violates the rights to free speech, expression, and information.
Web users concerned about overreaching government censorship controls can easily surpass them by using a service such as a VPN. As governments are unreliable in protecting fundamental rights, especially on the internet, netizens can take matters into their own hands and make personal connections secure.