Iran, Yemen, China, North Korea, Turkey, and many other countries on the globe have at one point or another started employing the practice of censoring the Internet domestically. This either partially or greatly restricted the international freedom of speech of its citizens. While a large portion of the world enjoys the ability to log into Twitter and say anything they want about their government and country, this isn’t the case in countries like Turkey, which enacted an active block of Twitter on March 20th, 2014. How do countries carry out Internet censorship? What methods have the most effect on a population?
Why Government Censor?
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.
There are a few reasons why a government would want its population to be unable to communicate through the Internet freely:
- It is wary of its population organizing a revolt. The Internet is an effective medium for organizing events, flash mobs, and even riots. Governments will block a social network, for example, with the intention of preventing people from messaging each other and publicly announcing their organized protests.
- Perhaps the government is cautious of ruining its outward image and wants to hide the ugly reality of its internal struggles. Countries like North Korea are very concerned about the image they display to other nations around the world. It may be a little too late to protect its reputation, but it’s been actively forbidding external Internet access for this exact reason.
This may cover everything, but if you think I missed something, please feel free to discuss that in the comments section.
How do governments block social media?
Governments don’t have the physical or technical ability to block sites, phones or texts themselves.They issue an order to the companies who do have that power, eg Congo-Brazzaville’s government issued an order to the country’s mobile phone operators such as Airtel and MTN.
Authoritarian states like China and Russia; and more totalitarian states like North Korea; are all examples of countries who rely on censorship to keep their citizens in line with their regime. But the level of suppression they use extends beyond the internet. All levels of public-access information, whether it be speech or the press, is state-sponsored or state-monitored, meaning the information you receive from the news is essentially what the government are allowing you to receive.
But while this doesn’t compute with the free-thinking ideals of western society, it may surprise you to know that countries like the UK and USA are known for policies that actively contradict internet freedoms. The UK especially would argue that their hands have been forced due to a recent spate of terrorist attacks. That, and ever-difficult-to-detect illicit activity like what occurs through Tor sites; such as illegal weapons and drugs sales. And only until recently did we discover, thanks to Edward Snowden, that the NSA has been intercepting the internet communications of Americans for years.
Freedom of speech is a luxury many take for granted, and forms of protest against a government’s censorship regime can be severe. In the UK, for example, people can openly object and criticize a government’s decision through the form of protest. In countries like China and North Korea, this behavior would likely earn you a prison sentence for treason; or worse, depending on the individual.
What Sort of Content do they Block?
The content that these countries block varies greatly – as do the reasons why they block them in the first place. Not all governments employ censorship as a means to push nationalized propaganda – some take a heavier hand as it’s a chance to prevent abhorrent crimes. Either way, below we’ve mentioned just some of the types of websites and applications that are unavailable in many countries.
Websites like YouTube and Dailymotion provide a platform for people to express opinion – the sort of activity some governments fear can lead to civil and political unease. While the only countries that have an active block are China, Iran and North Korea, there’s a history of YouTube censorship throughout the world – including in places like Finland and Russia.
While the government in the UK provide public-funded news through the BBC, it still remains free press. They have no input editorially. The media in countries like China and Vietnam is largely state owned – so their editorial input goes deep. The locations with the most news censorship also happen to be the ones who put the most journalists behind bars as a form of harassment – or for objecting to their ideals.
Apps like WhatsApp offer end-to-end encryption for calls, text messages, voice recordings, images and videos. As this can’t be monitored, stricter locations keep it firmly blocked. And as for social media sites like Facebook and Twitter; arguably some of the best ways to communicate, promote your business, and express yourself; a lot of governments want to keep it locked down. That’s why they offer their own alternatives – to maintain control and allow people to still access these functions, so as not to cause civil unrest.
Even Google, a simple-to-use and highly popular search engine, is blocked in China. As a result, Google has made many of its business services inaccessible – like Gmail and Maps. A fundamental reason for China not allowing people to access it is simply because they can’t control it. While Google censors content daily, and blacklists material that falls into certain categories, where it draws the line on censorship is different to where China draws it. Just like social-networking sites, Both China and Russia offer their own search engines – named Baidu and Yandex respectively.
How can People in Censored Countries Access Geo-Restricted Content?
People in strict countries around the world are using VPNs to bypass restrictions on their internet freedom. A VPN (Virtual Private Network) adds a secure line of defense when connecting to both public and private networks. By routing all DNS requests through the VPN before the ISP, it keeps your movement on the web encrypted and untraceable.
But VPNs aren’t just used for anonymity – through them, users can access the content that their government doesn’t want them to. By taking an IP address linked to the UK, for example, your device is essentially fooled into thinking you’re currently browsing from the UK.
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Please note this article is strictly for educational purposes and does not encourage any Zimbabweans to practice anything deemed illegal by the Government of Zimbabwe.