What is online censorship and how does it actually work?
The internet is one of the most revolutionary inventions in all of human history. It’s a series of interconnected servers that provide information among devices. What the users do with this information is solely their own and, concurrently, what websites or publishers offer should be under no surveillance and monitored by gatekeepers.
The channel to which this communication coheres is through an ISP (internet service provider). Through its services, the user and a website publisher can establish a connection where the user requests data and information, and the publisher fulfills the user’s requests.
However, a fourth component is at play – government regulation. In most countries that host authoritarian regimes, the local ISPs are under the iron grip of governmental institutions most of which have specialized departments whose job is to enforce internet censorship.
The ISPs are responsible for actually implementing the restrictions on offending websites or content that threaten the livelihood of the state-commissioned or bluntly coerced by the government agencies.
What is internet censorship?
Censorship is the suppression of expression. Internet censorship comprises steps that a censor partakes in either halting the release of information from the publisher’s side or limiting or redirecting access to that information that connects the user to the publisher. A censor’s ultimate job is to prevent information from disseminating to the masses.
How does it work?
If you’re residing in a country that is currently blocking access to a website, then you will either be faced with a notification warning you about the contents of the website, or a page displaying that you are disconnected from the internet. That is censorship actively working to prevent you from visiting the website.
To understand how internet censorship works, we first have to understand what happens behind the scenes when entering a website. Let’s say you want to visit a popular website like Google. The first step would be to open your browser and type Google.com followed by being redirected to the website itself.
A browser does not know what “Google.com” means, so it sends a query to a DNS (Domain name system) server to acquire the IP address of Google. The DNS server will translate the written words into a numeric value. Since this website is extremely popular, the DNS server might already know what the IP address is. But in some cases, the DNS server would often ask other DNS servers on the internet what the corresponding IP address is. Once it finds the IP address associated with Google.com, it will send it to the user’s browser and connect you to Google.
A censor can block a user’s connection upon requesting the IP address to the corresponding requested website such as Google. The censor-controlled DNS server can either say this page does not exist or will redirect the request to a dummy IP address otherwise known as DNS Redirection or DNS hijacking.
Here are some other ways a censor can block you:
- Filtering Keywords: A censor will detect keywords in the content of the message and prevent the user from accessing the requested website.
- Packet Shaping: The ISP allows certain apps and sites to function better than others by restricting bandwidth. This is quite common for all ISPs around the world.
- IP Address Blocking: The ISP provides you with an IP address that is associated with your device’s address. If they sense that you’re doing any activity that does not adhere to the state’s operation, then they can impose a direct IP address block on the user.
What happens if you try to access censored websites?
If you decide to send a request to open a censored website, then your ISP can know your original IP address, where you are, your device model, and other sensitive information about you. They have a track record of your visited websites and for how long you remained on certain pages.
They will know if you searched for anything regarded as censored which can compromise your identity.
Why do countries censor content?
Censorship is one of the strongest practices to control a population. Countries like Iran, China, and North Korea (to name a few) impose heavy restrictions on ISPs to limit the flow of information. Any app or website that may undermine a government’s directive is subjected to censorship. This also includes sites or social media networks that are associated with pornography, obscene content, insinuating propaganda, encouraging dating, inciting violence, or fake news.
Such governments control their ISPs under political intents. Not all countries have full censorship. This report shows the spectrum by which the 10 countries around the world experience internet censorship.
How can it affect you?
As censorship poses obvious limitations, it can also be beneficial and coincide with plenty of positive affiliations. Here are some advantages of internet censorship.
- Limitations of harmful or distasteful content such as videos and images that might be obtainable by children.
- Certain websites have a marketplace where users can buy and sell items and professional services. Unfortunately, some illicit items such as drugs and weapons are advertised for sale. Censorship will allow the platforms to screen any advertisements that can be considered illegal.
- Prevents the spread of misinformation otherwise known as “fake news”. Major platforms have undergone an increase of viral fake news often superseding the truth. This is not a form of spreading propaganda, but rather having a platform provide a voice to unqualified individuals who can voice an opinion with no factual basis.
- Limits the flow of information in restricted countries that want access to internet freedom. Countries like Iran, North Korea, and China apply strict measures of censorship and don’t allow mega-platforms like Facebook, Google, or YouTube to provide their services.
- It can paint a negative image of the country by preventing popular websites and apps from performing there.
- Applying censorship on a governmental colossal scale costs a lot of money. Countries like Iran have a bureau strictly for monitoring and censoring anything that may be presentable as harmful to the country.
What you can do about it
It’s difficult to hide from heavy surveillance. However, there are some measures you can adapt to bypass any censorship administered by a governmental entity.
Use a browser like Tor
Search engines and browsers are a means to establish communication with the internet. Using a browser such as Tor will hide your real identity by utilizing layers of encryption. It can conceal your data and hide your location so that any institution can’t know who you are or where you’re located.
Use proxy server
It’s a server that acquires data from the internet and routes it to your device on your behalf serving as the “middleman” in between. The problem with this is that the server hosts can still see your traffic requests meaning they know what content you're accessing online even if they don't particularly know your real IP address.
Get a VPN
A VPN is an affordable and easy way to get around censorship and restrictions. It changes your IP address to a country that is not restricted. By changing your IP address, you can increase your online privacy and remain anonymous from your ISP, government institutions, and tracking websites.
Your requests will still run through your ISP, but they’re encrypted. No one will know what you’re doing or which sites you’re visiting – including your ISP. Some countries also restrict certain features in apps that are not available in your country of residence. A VPN will unlock the features so that you can gain full admission.