In this piece, we look at the who-what-where-when-why-how of internet censorship to see how online censorship is having implications for countries around the globe. We also answer the question “how does internet censorship work?” by delving into the details. In part 2, we look at censorship on a country-by-country basis.
Internet censorship is, unfortunately, increasingly common these days. The news is rife with reports of censorship, and the latest copy of the Freedom on the Net report reveals that internet censorship is on the rise. In fact, internet freedom has been declining worldwide for the past 10 years. That is not a positive trend. But what is censorship, exactly? Why does it occur? And how does it impact you as an internet user?
What is Censorship?
In general terms, censorship refers to the “the suppression of words, images, or ideas that are "offensive,” according to a definition provided by the ACLU. It is further defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the suppression or prohibition of any parts of books, films, news, etc. that are considered obscene, politically unacceptable, or a threat to security.”
At its core, censorship is a way to restrict the freedom of expression of an individual or group. Censorship can occur in many venues and commonly applies to speech and writing, as well as the dissemination of information or news. It is far-reaching, and can extend to any form of expression to encompass things like clothing, literature and art. The main goal of censorship is to restrict, control or influence personal, political and moral views.
Who Enacts Censorship?
Censorship can be enacted by anyone but is imparted on the largest scale by governments. Censorship can occur on smaller scales, too, in a setting such as an educational institution or workplace, in which one group is “in charge” or in control over another. Technically an individual can censor another, but for censorship to be most effective - and damaging - it must be imposed by someone in a position of authority with the ability to influence [many] others.
Censorship can also be imposed by an individual onto themselves, a phenomenon referred to as “self-censorship.” Self-censorship occurs when an individual is so concerned about repercussions – whether that be punishment like a fine or jail time or being ostracized from a group – that they censor themselves. This means they refrain from saying, posting, doing or expressing what they actually feel due to their fear of the consequence. Self-censorship is increasingly common, and in the online realm often occurs when people choose to not post their actual thoughts or viewpoints online. This includes refraining from posting opinions on sites such as social media or personal blogs, or as commentary on content others have posted.
What is Internet Censorship?
Internet censorship refers to the restriction of content in the virtual world. Internet censorship is most often enacted by a government, although internet service providers, technology firms and smaller organizations (for example, a school) also enact censorship from time to time. Most often, if an internet service provider or technology company imparts censorship on a large scale they are doing so at the request of a government, or in accordance with a law or regulation [passed by the government]. Like censorship in general, internet censorship is intended to restrict what content or information is available online. As formally defined by RIT, “Internet censorship is the concept of limiting the flow of information in order to better protect the population or, in most cases, to protect the country’s interests.”
How Does Internet Censorship Work?
Internet censorship can take on many forms. Often, internet censorship is not restricted to just one thing but encompasses a combination of the following.
Blocking & Censoring
- Blocked Sites: Any site may be blocked, but sites that are blocked most often include news sites and blogs. Blocked sites also often include those with controversial material such as pornography.
- Blocked or Altered Content: A step down from blocked sites, censorship sometimes involves blocking certain content from sites, or changing that content to fit within governmental, moral or religious boundaries.
- Blocked Applications: The blocking of applications available for use on mobile devices, tablets or computers. Most often, application blocks occur on social media applications and messaging or communications platforms.
- Censoring or Blocking of Social Media: This can include blocking of entire sites (for example, Facebook.com), or censoring of certain content or comments posted on these sites by users.
- Blocked VPNS: Countries are increasingly blocking access to tools that help internet users circumvent internet censorship, including VPNs.
- Removed Content: Content that was posted then taken down after it was posted.
- Redirects: Redirecting visitors to another site different than the one they tried/intended to visit.
Restrictions for Providers
- Forcing technology companies to block certain pages or features, by enacting laws or via governmental pressure (or a negative action, such as a fine or throttling speed, for non-compliance)
- Forcing ISPs to restrict access to certain content
- Pressuring social media or technology companies to remove content disliked by the government
Disruptions & Attacks
- Intentional disruption to internet service (shutdown or blackout)
- Cutting off of internet service (or all service inclusive of data or mobile services; many people rely on data to access the internet)
- Spyware against journalists, dissenters and other groups
- DDoS attacks
Surveillance & Other Measures
- Surveillance and spying
- Punishment for those who circumvent internet restrictions or share controversial views
Who is Internet Censorship Targeted At?
In a word, anyone. If imparted by a government, censorship is targeted at all citizens. Most often the largest targets of censorship are journalists, protestors, civil rights advocates, lawyers or those with a dissenting view in opposition to the ruling party.
Why Does Internet Censorship Occur?
Internet censorship occurs for a variety of reasons, in an attempt to control what information is – or is not – available. This includes to hide news or present a specific view of events. It is also often used to squelch dissent; blocking of social media sites was notoriously used (and these sites instrumental) in uprisings such as the Arab Spring. Censorship in China, for instance, includes blocking of Google and thus is a way for the government to control what information citizens see. At its core censorship is a mechanism for control. Censorship may be pervasive and ongoing to control access and free speech. Or, as mentioned above, it may be used in response to an event such as a protest to stop people from organizing or sharing their message.
Often, censorship is enacted under the guise of “protection” or safety. For example, shutting a social media site could be said to help keep protests from forming for safety. Or censoring information on the pandemic could be done under the guise of keeping people from panicking to help protect them. This is often used as an excuse for surveillance as well. At other times, censorship is enacted or justified for “moral” reasons, in conjunction with social norms or requirements. Content that goes against beliefs or moral practices or cultural traditions is often the target of censorship. As is, of course, anti-government speech.
What’s the Connection Between Censorship and Surveillance?
You may have noticed above that surveillance was mentioned repeatedly in conjunction with censorship, as there is a strong connection between the two. Like censorship, surveillance is often enacted under the guise of keeping people safe. Surveillance is also most often put into place by governments, with the underling goal of controlling the flow of information. More directly, those who speak out – on blocked social sites, using tools like a VPN, or those in the field like journalists - are often the first targets of surveillance as they are deemed “threatening.”
Surveillance and censorship are inextricably connected, because to impart strong censorship you must also be conducting& surveillance. To filter or remove content, you must be monitoring it on an ongoing basis. This means you must be participating in invasive practices and/or outright surveillance. It also means the two concepts cannot be separated. As the Guardian asserts, “Ironically, from a human rights perspective, censorship with surveillance is better than censorship on its own.” What they mean is that if censorship with surveillance occurs at least there is a basis for what is censored.
The Importance of Internet Freedom
The internet was built to be a free, open resource accessible to people around the world and to provide universal access to content and information. In the years since its creation, however, the internet has become increasingly segmented and restricted. Internet freedom is essential for many reasons, including:
- Basic human right
- Freedom of expression
- Access to information
- Open communication
- Connection and collaboration
- Access to tools and platforms
- Exchange of ideas and creativity
At VyprVPN we’ve always believed in the power of a free internet and are proud to offer a product that helps internet users around the world bypass restrictions. In addition to creating tools, we also have a long history of advocating for the rightsand freedoms of internet users.
How Can You Bypass Censorship?
There is only one effective way to bypass censorship online – with a VPN. What is a VPN? A VPN allows you to change your IP address, meaning you can appear to be in a country you are not. In this way, you can circumvent censorship enacted via location-based IP blocks. A VPN also secures your connection, to keep your identify safe and private even from the most oppressive governments.