Internet censorship is when users are blocked or otherwise prevented from accessing some websites or specific content online. It can happen at various levels and for different objectives. Regardless, users are not given a choice as to what they can or cannot access.
What Content is Usually Blocked?
Depending on your location, the type of content blocked varies widely. Some countries block access to specific types of content or services that might be illegal in those places. For example, many Asian countries will try to prevent access to porn websites.
Content targeted for censorship will typically include:
While this might sound innocuous enough, Internet censorship is known to be used by particularly oppressive governments to prevent their populace from interacting with people outside their borders.
When Does Censorship Happen and Why?
Organizations like Freedom House track the increasing levels of web censorship globally (Source: Freedom House)
Internet censorship can be something permanently in place at the national level or even intermittently enforced. The general excuse given is the protection of the populace, but if true, they can instead mandate the use of the right tools such as secure web browsers.
Instead, countries often pursue Internet censorship to further political objectives.
For example, in January 2021, the Ugandan government blocked social media websites just before their general elections. The election campaign period saw widespread violence erupt in the country as those in power sought re-election.
On the other hand, China implements Internet censorship on a large scale. A nationwide virtual barrier, known as the Great Firewall of China, prevents anyone from accessing many websites and services.
Organizations Also Enforce Internet Censorship
Censorship might also happen at an organizational level, depending on the policies that are in force.
One example of this is companies that prevent staff from accessing social media sites from within the workplace. As many as 36% of companies are known to do this to combat lost productivity.
Institutes of learning, like schools and universities, in countries like the US tend to block websites due to child protection laws. Examples of websites and services blocked in these cases are social media, file-sharing services, forums, pornography, and more.
Internet Censorship Does Provide Some Benefits
Although many netizens dislike censorship, the web can indeed be a dangerous place. Due to an open development concept, anyone can publish anything, and a massive amount of content isn’t filtered or even fact-checked.
For example, a 12-year old schoolboy could quickly start a website sharing medical knowledge that might have no scientific basis. Thanks to the rapid development of tools like website builders, even those with little technical skills can put together professional-looking websites.
Cybercriminals also set up websites with malicious intent, often stealing user data, installing malware, and more. On a broad level, the enactment of Internet censorship can help in various areas, including:
- Providing a safe buffer for netizens
- Preventing the spread of fake news
- Preventing cybercrime
- Pre-empt criminal activities
How Internet Censorship is Enforced
Thanks to the various technologies used online, there are many ways of enforcing Internet censorship. Some of the more common methodologies include:
For all Internet access, data gets arranged into “packets” for efficient transmission and reception. Aside from the core data, packets include other elements needed for the communication, such as port numbers, source and destination IP address, and more.
Because of this, firewalls can inspect the packets and prevent transmission based on the IP addresses identified within. Many Internet Service Providers (ISPs) use packet filtering, sometimes mandated by law.
IP Address Blocking
One of the most common methods of Internet censorship is the blocking of IP addresses. These series of numbers are unique identifiers that show the destination of a request. The straightforward implementation of IP address blocking makes it a popular choice.
This method of blocking is also straightforward to circumvent. One of the most effective ways of bypassing IP blocking is using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) like NordVPN. VPNs are tools that help users mask their real origin IP and encrypt data sent along the VPN tunnel.
Another low-level censorship technique is keyword filtering, where firewalls scan transmission packets for specific keywords from the database. This technique is beneficial in some use cases, like the enforcement of parental controls.
Alongside keyword filtering, some ISPs or other organizations may also opt for IP address filtering. This method is more similar to IP address blocking, except that the list can easily be maintained in plain language.
Blacklisting of Specific Port Numbers
Some applications, websites, and services need to use specific port numbers to operate. For example, Peer-to-Peer (P2P) clients often use a default port number that many neglect to change. Because of this, port number blacklisting can be a somewhat effective way of preventing P2P activities.
Disadvantages of Internet Censorship
Unfortunately, Internet censorship is an area that’s hotly debated for many reasons. In many western countries, freedom is a treasured commodity that extends to the digital world and something for which many are willing to fight.
As outlined earlier in the case of Uganda, China, and many other countries, Internet censorship is a political tool used to the disadvantage of individuals. In cases like this, disadvantages far negate potential benefits.
Often, there is no clear definition of purpose in censorship other than the vague claim of the blanket protection such activities bring. Few checks and balances will be present, with most related activities being highly arbitrary.
Even within free countries, any attempt at censorship comes at the cost of implementation using taxpayers’ money. Essentially, citizens are paying the government to block their access to websites and services. Said out loud, that does sound highly contrary to logic.
Because of many of the factors listed above, Internet censorship increasingly looks like a slippery slope for most countries to stand. The risk of sliding towards a censorship state with tight controls over free speech is genuine.
Like many things in life, there is a choice when it comes to Internet censorship. Unless you’re willing to watch your digital freedom dissolve into nothingness, you need to take matters into your own hands.
Some ways of doing so, as mentioned earlier, are by using secure web browsers and VPNs. However, due thought also needs to go into taking more responsibility for your digital safety. Some examples of this are setting up multifactor authentication for online services or running a reputable Internet security application.
The future of digital freedom is in your hands, but while fighting for freedom, remember to stay safe in cyberspace.