In 2011, the Arab Spring arrived in in Egypt: thousands took to the streets to protest the autocratic rule of Hosni Mubarak. Since most of the demonstrations were organized online using social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, the Egyptian government ordered all telecom companies to shut down their Internet services in a bid to keep the peace.
This is what Egyptian Internet traffic looked like after those orders were sent out.
This shutdown goes to show that the Internet is not as free as we may think. Though it seems to be a platform where users can send and receive messages without limit, reality doesn’t quite match up to that. In this article, Cloudwards.net will take a look at Internet censorship around the world, how it is implemented and how you can circumvent these blocks.
How Does Internet Censorship Work?
If you’re wondering how a government can shut down the Internet in an entire country, you’d be surprised at how easy it actually is.
When you examine the underlying infrastructure, you’ll find that networks are highly centralized in most countries. Regardless of the ISP you use, all data is sent through central routing systems. These nodes essentially serve as choke points where a single switch can turn the Internet off; governments and ISPs usually control these switches.
The Great Firewall
A good example, and likely the best known, is the People’s Republic of China and its Great Firewall. The communist regime in the Middle Kingdom only permits its people to visit vetted websites, so any website that doesn’t meet party standards isn’t accessible when in China. We recommend visitors to the country use any of our best VPN for China picks for that very reason.
Over the last few years, the Chinese government has become more confident about these practices, even describing its Internet sovereignty as a model for the rest of the world to emulate. This is because while the Great Firewall might be terrible for human rights and free speech, it has proven just great for big business.
As Chinese consumers are forced to use home-grown websites to shop from, they are posting record sales, outshining the U.S. by miles. China is unfortunately not the only country that imposes Internet censorship; a look at this image gives you an idea of the state of Internet freedom in the world today.
A glance at this image shows that there are many more countries other than China limiting Internet freedom, with Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan and Vietnam leading the way. Before going into why some countries have strict Internet controls, let’s quickly understand how more liberal countries like Japan, Australia, Canada and Germany handle their Internet.
The Internet in Censorship-Free Countries
One major difference between liberal and less liberal countries is that the former don’t have a centralized Internet system. This means that there are many paths to and from the outside world and not all traffic goes through central locations. With such a diversified infrastructure, it’s almost impossible for any single person or authority to control Internet traffic.
On top of that, most countries with a free Internet are democratic, so no single authority can shut down the Internet without getting prior approval from parliament. Even if the executive or legislative branches approve it, the judiciary can be counted on to put a stop to it.
Besides democracy, these countries generally have a vibrant economy and a healthy competitive business environment. As a result, no single ISP can establish a monopoly and Internet nodes abound to facilitate traffic.
Internet Censorship the World Over
The entire Internet infrastructure and the economy of liberal countries function in such a way that censorship is almost impossible to implement. You’ll find that the following five countries are missing all these elements and the regimes there have little trouble imposing their will on people wanting to surf the web.
In Russia Internet censorship is enforced through the Russian Internet Restriction Bill, which was passed in 2012. This federal law gives the government the right to block sites that advocate drug abuse, child pornography, extremism, suicide or any other information that the government believes is detrimental to the well-being of its citizens.
Though the bill was passed with the claim it would protect Russian citizens, many critics claim that it promotes censorship, as the criteria for determining what is detrimental is highly subjective.
In some cases, this law has been used to repress political freedom and the ability of Russians to express their opinion against their government. A good example is career-building site LinkedIn, which was banned in Russia under a law that came into being in 2014. This ban was implemented after activists used the site to organize anti-Putin protests.
The law in question states that social networks must store data on Russian citizens on servers based in Russia. Though this may seem like a genuine move to ensure privacy, Anton Nossik, a prominent blogger, claims that it’s a way to shut down all social media websites and to prevent any opposition to government policies.
In this light, many people are worried about the recent visits of pro-censorship Russian officials and businessmen to China. As the stated goal of these visits is to study the Great Firewall and how it works, it could be that the Putin regime might become even more heavy-handed in their bid to keep the reins firmly in hand.
Saudi Arabia has an effective and efficient system for Internet censorship. It not only blocks anything that’s considered “immoral” under Islamic laws, but also political content that agitates against the royal family or its policies. A positive side of this Internet censorship is that it is also used to wage a successful online war against al-Qaeda and other terrorist outfits that try to promote their ideologies among Saudi residents.
One unique aspect of Saudi Arabia’s censorship bureau is that it’s run by fewer than 25 people. To put that in perspective, China employs thousands of people and a wide arsenal of technologies to effect the same.
The secret behind this efficiency is that Saudi Arabia relies on its citizens to inform them about gambling or pornographic websites. According to a report by Bloomberg, citizens send in more than 1,200 requests per day to block sites. Students and religiously inclined groups are among the most active when it comes to flagging offensive content.
With such overwhelming support, Internet censorship will likely continue to thrive in the Arabian kingdom.
Iran has one of the highest levels of Internet censorship in the world. As you would expect from an Islamic Republic, pornographic content is completely banned. Along with it, other content that fit into categories such as art, news and society are also censored heavily.
A study conducted by Alex Halderman and two Iranian citizens shows that more than half of the top 500 sites in the world are blocked in Iran. In addition, Iran filters websites based on certain keywords. For example, in the above study, Halderman created a file called “sex.html” and hosted it on American servers. When the researchers tried to access it from Iran, they couldn’t.
This goes to show that every word is monitored through its sophisticated systems before it is allowed through the routers. Even encrypted protocols are not allowed, so web proxies and VPNs don’t work either. Any content that the Iranian firewall doesn’t recognize is cut off within 60 seconds. Such extensive censorship is not easy to implement by any stretch and this is probably why the government has capped the nationwide speed at 128kbps for every user.
That’s almost half of the speed we see in the U.S. today. Also, access to high-resolution video content is highly limited. As a result, censors in Iran are not overwhelmed with traffic and can take their time to sift through every piece of content at leisure.
Pakistan has intensified its censorship over the last few years to repress political freedom, as well as for religious and cultural reasons. It is clamping down heavily on social media websites to prevent any form of free speech on the Internet.
On May 20, Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency arrested six people for posting comments on social media and is investigating more than 18 social media activists for spreading negative information about the government and army.
It has also taken measures to curb online anonymity by linking social media accounts with the cell phone number of each user. Mobile phones, in turn, are linked to the fingerprints of users, ensuring that the government can link cell phone usage to specific individuals.
Such pervasive restrictions severely affect Internet freedom and this is why Human Rights Watch has demanded an end to these policies. Opposition parties claim that their workers are being intimidated and detained without any charges. Even prominent journalists like Taha Siddiqui are being harassed, according to a report by a local newspaper.
Existing Pakistani laws support such a severe crackdown on Internet freedom and such measures are only expected to get worse over the coming months.
Seemingly taking a leaf out of its big brother’s handbook, Vietnam’s communist regime ensures that no anti-government or anti-communist content is ever read or watched by any of its residents. Unlike countries like Saudi Arabia, the intent of Vietnamese censorship is mostly political. Still, it bans social media users and bloggers from gathering any information about government websites or authorities.
A law called Decree 72 has overarching provisions to filter content, create legal liability for ISPs and mandate all companies to take down any content that the government deems is offensive to the national security and traditions of the country.
In addition to all that, Vietnam has jailed one of the highest number of bloggers and dissidents since 2013. All this has led to a general sense of fear among the public, something that the government believes is essential to protect its ideology.
How to Circumvent Censorship
Though governments believe they have a strong grip on Internet usage, in reality, you can easily circumvent these blocks. In Iran, for example, tools like Tor, FreeGate and UltraSafe are used extensively, especially by bloggers who prefer to post their content anonymously.
VPNs are another popular way to overcome these restrictions, as these tools encrypt your data and tunnel them through private networks. This way, you can circumvent online filters and access the free Internet without any restrictions whatsoever.
In short, Internet censorship is increasing by the day as governments — and in some countries ISPs — want to have a tight grip over what their respective residents watch or read on the Internet.
This censorship is more intense in countries like China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Russia and Vietnam when compared to others. A combination of political, social, religious and cultural factors are the rationale behind this censorship.
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However, as an average resident, you might think you’re missing out on all the action that’s enjoyed by those in the free-Internet world. That’s not really true because you can use any of our best VPN services to bypass these filters. In this sense, your Internet access is not so restricted after all. We hope you enjoyed this piece.
Please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section. Thank you for reading.