What is internet censorship?
Internet censorship is the regulation and restriction of accessing and sharing information on the internet.
Internet censorship is often authorized by the government and enforced by internet service providers (ISPs). However, private companies, educational institutions, or employers can also implement internet censorship to limit or filter access to certain content online.
What is commonly censored?
Internet censoring can affect anything online, but the most commonly censored content includes:
- Political content. A lot of internet censorship comes down to politics. From limiting access to political content during elections to blocking all media that dares to criticize the ruling powers, many governments restrict access to content of opposing political views.
- Content related to contrasting religions, social norms, or cultural values. Like political content, content that presents different social or religious norms often faces restrictions online. Some countries still ban media related to LGBTQ, while theocracies restrict content contradicting their religious beliefs. Anything and everything else that could give citizens any “wrong ideas” deviating from what’s socially and culturally acceptable can be banned. Even academic content and art can be restricted if it challenges prevailing ideologies or political interests.
- Content related to human rights violations, activism, or protests. Countries often use censorship to control the narrative of events related to human rights violations. For example, the Chinese government still censors online content related to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and massacre. It’s common to suppress information about ongoing wars and demonstrations to prevent dissent.
- Social networks and other communication platforms. Email providers, social media companies, and messaging apps can face internet censorship simply for enabling communication and sharing of information. The exception is usually granted to platforms operating within the country and controlled by the government.
- Media outlets. If there’s a chance that journalists can cover any taboo topics, governments can outright block the entire website or media outlet. It’s especially common to block foreign media outlets.
- Adult content and nudity. Some countries ban or restrict pornography or any display of nudity because of social and religious norms or legal age. Many online platforms, such as social media sites, also block or filter content that may be deemed inappropriate, be it a breastfeeding mother or an explicit nude.
- Violence and hate speech. Violent depictions and hateful language are against community guidelines on many online platforms, so such content gets removed, and users posting anything related get banned.
- Gambling websites. Online casinos and betting platforms also face censorship, especially in countries where gambling is illegal or heavily regulated.
- Platforms distributing copyrighted content. Torrenting and other services that enable copyright infringement often confront country-wide bans, even in the most democratic countries.
- Privacy and censorship-evasion tools. Tools and services that allow internet users to avoid some forms of censorship, such as virtual private networks (VPNs), proxies, or Tor, get restricted or even outlawed in countries that practice heavy censorship.
Where does online censorship happen?
The level of internet censorship can differ, but you can encounter it everywhere – from your own home to the countries you visit during your vacations.
- At home. If your ISP blocks access to torrenting websites, that’s internet censorship. There may be ethical reasoning behind the blocking, but it’s censorship nevertheless. Moreover, parents can install parental controls or set up a firewall to prevent children from accessing inappropriate websites, enforcing a form of internet censorship at home.
- At work. Your employer may block some online content to limit distractions at the workplace. For example, you may be unable to access social media platforms or entertainment sites while connected to your office network or using your work devices. However, when you leave your workplace or use a personal device, this online censorship doesn’t apply anymore.
- At school or university. Educational institutions also use internet censorship to block access to social media, entertainment websites, or adult content to avoid distractions or filter out inappropriate content. It’s usually limited to the institution’s network – you won’t be able to access content at school libraries or dorms. Everything will work fine when connected to the internet in a cafe or home.
- In a particular country. Many countries enforce internet censorship across their entire territory. China, Russia, and North Korea are perfect examples. The internet can be regulated for a prolonged time or during particular events, such as the election period. While the restrictions are aimed at citizens, any expats or visitors in the country also experience censorship.
How does internet censorship work?
Since the type or level of internet censorship differs depending on the situation, so do the measures taken to enforce it. The most common methods of implementing censorship include:
DNS tampering is a standard technique internet service providers use to censor the internet. To understand how it works, it helps to be familiar with the domain name system (DNS).
DNS resolves human-readable domain names like “nordvpn.com” to computer-readable IP addresses like “188.8.131.52.” This resolution happens on a DNS server your device connects to request the necessary IP address.
By default, your device connects to DNS servers controlled by your internet service provider. If your ISP needs to censor some websites upon the government’s request, they can “tamper” with the records in their DNS servers – for example, to remove the IP addresses of all banned domains, so your device couldn’t retrieve their IP addresses.
IP address blocking
Censorship based on IP address blocking involves web servers enforcing or practicing censorship themselves.
Any website can allow access to their content to some visitors but not others. To restrict certain visitors from accessing, web servers only need to block their IP addresses. It’s done for many reasons, not just censorship – for example, preventing hackers from accessing the website’s resources or bots from flooding it with spam comments.
However, a website could also be instructed by the governments or have different reasons to block access to visitors from a particular location. That’s usually the case when you get an error message announcing that content is unavailable in your region.
URL filtering is a censorship technique controlling or restricting website access based on specific criteria. URL filters analyze the web pages to determine whether you should be able to access them or not.
A simple example of this is keyword filtering – automatically analyzing keywords on a specific page. If a lot of terms related to adult content are found, and pornography is supposed to be censored, your access to the website could be denied.
Apart from the keywords, URL filtering can analyze the category of the website and its security rating, or compare it to the list of previously blocked domains.
Packet filtering involves checking the network packets’ headers for information about the traffic, including the source and destination IP address, protocol type, and ports.
Packet filtering is one of the firewall functions used for traffic control, especially recognizing and stopping malicious traffic. In the hands of censors, it can be used to block internet traffic with undesired encryption protocols or traffic from ports used by censorship circumvention tools.
Traffic shaping is a network management technique used to control and prioritize traffic. For example, network administrators can use it to limit bandwidth for specific types of traffic, such as streaming or torrenting.
From a censorship point of view, traffic shaping can help slow access to restricted websites, so users would give up visiting them or find them slow and unreliable.
The port blocking technique involves censoring traffic from a specific network port and using a particular transport protocol. Usually, this method is enough to recognize encrypted traffic, so ISPs use port blocking when they need to stop the use of VPNs or other encryption tools.
Countries with internet censorship
The level of internet censorship varies globally. Some countries take extreme measures to censor internet content, while others resort to it only in severe cases.
In the following sections, we list countries with the most and least censorship based on the World Press Freedom Index (WPFI) from Reporters Without Borders.
Countries with the most censorship
The highest level of internet censorship can usually be found in authoritarian states. The worst censorship offenders include:
Access to the internet as we know it is highly restricted in North Korea. Only high-ranking officials can access the global internet, while the rest of the population can only browse on the national intranet called Kwangmyong. It’s all done to avoid outside influence and information leaks.
Internet access, as limited as it is, is also heavily monitored, so there’s no real online privacy in the country.
China is infamous for its internet censorship, including The Great Firewall of China, which blocks access to websites like Google, most social media sites, and news portals like BBC or CNN. (More about websites and ads blocked in China here.)
The country also conducts massive surveillance online and blocks the use of tools that circumvent their enforced internet restrictions, including VPNs that were not approved by the government.
Online censorship in Vietnam focuses on blocking content opposing the government. Search engines like Google are still accessible, but more than 1,000 other websites, mainly related to politics, human rights, and news specific to Vietnam, are blocked in the country.
Social media sites are available, but the government forces the platforms to remove posts related to political dissent. Internet activities are monitored, and users expressing government-opposing views face prison sentences.
Countries with the least censorship
Democratic countries usually have the lowest level of internet censorship, and most have laws protecting free speech. Some censorship still occurs to safeguard national security and copyrights or prevent defamation and child pornography.
When it comes to countries with the least censorship, the leaders are usually countries in Northern and Western Europe:
Since 2017, Norway has topped the WPFI as the country with the most media freedom. In this Scandinavian country, freedom from censorship is considered crucial to ensure freedom of expression. Online content is not restricted or regular, and there are no known cases of surveillance of private communications in the country.
Norway is also a great example of a country that protects the privacy of its citizens with its data privacy authority, fining companies like Meta and Grindr for misusing user data.
Ireland’s ratings on the WPFI are less stable (top 6 in 2022, top 12 in 2021, and top 13 in 2020), but the country has climbed to the second spot this year.
Freedom of expression is a fundamental right under Irish law, and the country doesn’t censor internet content or social media sites.
However, Ireland’s proposed law criminalizing hate speech is getting backlash, considering that “hate speech” is rather vague and can easily lean into restriction of freedom of expression. So, its high ranking on the WPFI may not stay for too long.
Denmark takes the third spot on the WPFI. Its constitution prohibits censorship and ensures the right to freedom of speech. But ISPs are obliged to block access to some online content, such as child pornography, unlicensed gambling websites, and foreign websites selling drugs. They also restrict copyright-infringing content when ordered by the court.
The Freedom on the Net report from Freedom House (FH) also deserves a look when talking about internet censorship. The ranking in our article was based on the WPFI only because it covers more countries.
Based on the Freedom on the Net report, the worst offender of internet freedom is China (there’s no data on North Korea), while Iceland seems to be the best protector of internet freedom (no data on Norway, Ireland, or Denmark).
Examples of internet censorship
Internet censorship examples are abundant. We’ve already mentioned some when discussing the countries with the most and least censorship. Some other instances of violating internet freedom include:
- Internet shutdowns in Myanmar, Kazakhstan, Sudan, Ethiopia, and, unfortunately, many more countries. Online censorship goes beyond blocking particular websites and content. Some countries shut down all internet access to prevent the organization of protests, especially around elections or after other significant changes in the government or laws. There have been at least 80 internet shutdowns between January and May this year alone.
- Temporary blocking of websites and apps, such as Telegram bans in Brazil or Azerbaijan. Many other countries have partially restricted the use of Telegram, too, primarily by blocking specific channels on the app. Similar bans and restrictions happen to many secure messaging apps, including Signal and WhatsApp.
- Content takedown requests. Governments often pressure online platforms to remove specific content or accounts. According to Google’s transparency report, between January 2011 and June 2023, the search giant received over 405,000 government requests to remove content from its products. 7,780 of these requests were related to government criticism, with most requests coming from Thailand (1,953), Russia (1,813), and Vietnam (1,562).
How to avoid internet censorship
Internet censorship usually hides under the pretenses of protecting national security and public morality or preventing fake news and hate speech. While some censorship has moral and ethical reasons, others have purely political agendas and violate the fundamental human right to freedom of expression. That’s why sometimes you may need to avoid internet censorship. Below are some tools help you do it:
A virtual private network (VPN) encrypts your internet traffic and routes it through VPN servers worldwide. It prevents ISPs (usually the primary enforcers of internet censorship) and governments from seeing or blocking access to websites you’re trying to access. Your ISP can see that you’re connected to a VPN server but cannot see where the traffic goes afterward.
Traffic routing through a VPN also hides your IP address – websites you visit see the IP of the VPN server instead. It can prevent websites from identifying you by linking your online content back to your IP address. That’s why VPNs can be essential to practice freedom of speech in countries with heavy censorship.
Since a VPN can help you avoid some forms of internet censorship, you may wonder whether VPNs are legal. It depends on the particular country. While it’s completely legal to use a VPN in most countries, stricter regimes can ban or regulate the use of VPNs.
Proxies also route internet traffic through an intermediary server, hiding your IP and allowing you to gain access to censored websites and resources. However, unlike VPNs, proxies usually don’t encrypt your traffic. So ISPs and governments could find out what you do online when connected to a proxy server.
Some secure online browsers help avoid censorship, too. The best example is the Tor browser. It routes your traffic through multiple volunteer-operated nodes, hiding your device as the origin of your connection. It allows you to access censored content if the last node is located in a country without the same restrictions.
Other secure browsers have features to limit online censorship, such as tracking blocking, DNS Over HTTPS, or HTTPS Everywhere. They won’t necessarily help you access censored content, but they can limit online monitoring and tracking by the government, which often goes hand in hand with censorship. And you can always install additional browser extensions, including a VPN or proxy, to improve your privacy and fight censorship further.
Private DNS servers
When internet censorship is enforced on the DNS level, you can avoid it using a private DNS. Instead of requesting the IP addresses from the DNS servers tampered with by ISP, DNS queries can be resolved by a different DNS provider.