What Internet Censorship Looks Like Around The World?

The State of Internet Censorship: A Global Perspective in 2023

The internet has revolutionized how we communicate, learn, work and express ourselves. But it has also become a battleground for competing visions of what should and shouldn‘t be accessible online. As we enter 2023, internet censorship is on the rise around the world, threatening to fragment the global internet into a patchwork of national networks, each with its own blacklists and choke points.

In this article, we‘ll provide a comprehensive overview of internet censorship worldwide – the different ways governments are restricting online content, the countries and regions where freedom of expression is most under threat, the latest technologies and techniques being used by censors and activists, and the broader implications for human rights and democracy in the digital age.

Types of Internet Censorship

Internet censorship comes in many forms, but can be roughly grouped into three main categories:

  1. Political censorship: This is the most common form of state-sponsored internet filtering, aimed at suppressing dissent, silencing opposition voices, and controlling the narrative around sensitive topics. It often involves blocking independent news websites, social media platforms, blogs, foreign outlets, and any other sources of information that challenge official government views. Many authoritarian regimes also restrict access to VPNs and other censorship circumvention tools to prevent people from bypassing filters.

  2. Moral and religious censorship: Governments around the world, whether democratic or authoritarian, block online content that is deemed immoral, offensive or blasphemous based on the dominant cultural or religious norms of the country. The most commonly targeted material includes pornography, gambling, alcohol and drugs, LGBTQ+ content, and criticism of religious figures or beliefs. Moral censorship is often framed as necessary to preserve social harmony and protect vulnerable groups.

  3. Copyright-related censorship: Blocking websites and online services that facilitate copyright infringement has become increasingly common over the past decade. The main targets are file-sharing and streaming sites that host or link to pirated movies, music, software and other copyrighted content. This type of censorship is driven mainly by the lobbying of the entertainment industry and is more prevalent in countries with strong intellectual property laws like the US and UK.

In addition to blocking entire websites or IP addresses, censorship can take other forms such as removing individual posts or pages, manipulating search results, throttling connection speeds, disabling certain website functions and revoking domain names. Deep packet inspection (DPI) is an advanced filtering method used by some governments and ISPs to analyze internet traffic in real-time and automatically block forbidden content.

The Countries Where Internet Freedom is Most Restricted

While no country allows totally unrestricted speech online, the degree of internet censorship varies hugely around the world. The most severe restrictions on online freedom are concentrated in a few authoritarian states and regions:

China
China is the world leader in internet censorship, with the ruling Communist Party exerting near total control over what citizens can access and share online through a combination of technological and social measures known as the Great Firewall. Facebook, Google, YouTube, Twitter and Wikipedia are all blocked, replaced by heavily censored domestic alternatives. Thousands of websites are blacklisted at the ISP level and keyword filters automatically remove any content deemed politically sensitive.

Getting caught accessing foreign news sites or using VPNs can lead to fines, dismissal and even imprisonment, while internet companies have to adhere to strict rules around content moderation and real-name registration. The already heavily restricted Chinese internet has grown even more constrained in recent years as President Xi Jinping has consolidated power. Censorship is no longer limited to politically sensitive topics but increasingly targets cultural content, LGBT groups, the entertainment industry, and even feminists.

Middle East & North Africa
Many countries in the MENA region employ extensive internet filtering to uphold religious values, silence political opposition and stifle freedom of expression. Websites and social media posts that contain nudity, sex, gay content, or criticism of Islam and the government are routinely blocked. Journalists and activists who speak out against censorship are often arrested and imprisoned.

During the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, several countries resorted to shutting down the entire internet to prevent protesters from organizing online. Censorship has only grown heavier since then amid resurgent authoritarianism. According to the human rights group SMEX, around 8,000 websites are currently blocked in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and UAE alone. Some countries like the UAE and Qatar have adopted more targeted filtering focused on political and moral content, while others like Syria and Yemen indiscriminately block large swathes of the internet.

Russia
While there are still some outposts of online freedom in Russia, the government‘s grip on the internet is tightening year by year. The independent media has been decimated through a combination of blocking, regulatory pressure and acquisition by Kremlin-friendly oligarchs. Many major international sites and services have been banned, often for refusing to store Russian user data within the country.

The failed 2018 attempt to block the popular messaging app Telegram sparked concerns that the government would seek to isolate the RuNet from the global internet entirely. So far that hasn‘t materialized, but with Putin increasingly turning to digital repression to quell dissent amid war in Ukraine, a walled-off, China-style internet may not be far off. A 2019 "sovereign internet" law has already given authorities vast powers to block foreign sites and wrest control of internet infrastructure in an emergency.

Southeast Asia
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to internet censorship in Southeast Asia, with a wide gulf between the relatively unfettered online space of the Philippines and Indonesia versus the locked-down networks of Vietnam and Thailand, where bloggers have been jailed for criticizing the monarchy. Malaysia and Singapore are somewhere in between, using extensive political censorship and sedition laws to restrict online speech within legal limits.

However, troubling region-wide trends have emerged in recent years including the rapid spread of sophisticated Chinese-made surveillance and censorship tools, the growing use of lese-majeste laws to stifle dissent, and "fake news" laws that conflate misinformation with criticism of the government. Cambodia and Myanmar have seen a sharp rise in internet censorship following military coups and political crises, while Thailand has used the COVID pandemic to pass emergency orders that further criminalize online speech.

Censorship circumvention and global trends

Despite the proliferation of internet filtering worldwide, determined netizens are still finding ways to tunnel through the barriers and access uncensored information. Virtual private networks (VPNs) remain the most popular method to bypass censorship by redirecting traffic through an encrypted tunnel to a server in a less restricted country. However, many governments are now also blocking VPN services and protocol, triggering a cat-and-mouse game as censors and activists try to outsmart each other through new circumvention techniques.

Other methods to obtain banned content include using the anonymous web browser Tor, encrypted messaging apps with built-in proxies, peer-to-peer platforms, and accessing "mirrored" versions of blocked websites hosted on content delivery networks or blockchain domains outside the censor‘s reach. Tech-savvy activists have also used more creative tactics like disguising banned content within Minecraft maps, GitHub pages and Airdrop messages.

Overall, global internet freedom has declined for the past twelve consecutive years according to Freedom House‘s annual report. Over 3 billion people live in countries where criticizing the government, military or ruling family is routinely subject to censorship. Arrests and attacks on netizens and online journalists reached a record high in 2022, while at least 33 countries have enacted new laws restricting online speech over the past 5 years.

Another worrying trend is the increasing cross-border spread of censorship through bilateral pressure, regulatory capture of tech platforms and telecom carriers, and ISP-level filtering of foreign websites. Authoritarian regimes are learning from each other and even cooperating to impose their narrow definition of "cyber sovereignty" on the previously borderless internet. Even some democratic governments in the West have moved to ban foreign apps and platforms over data privacy and security concerns.

The implications of creeping internet censorship go beyond the silencing of individual voices. It threatens to Balkanize the global internet into a patchwork of incompatible networks, stifling the free exchange of information and ideas that has driven so much of the world‘s social and economic progress over the past three decades. The countries that maintain an open internet will enjoy a significant competitive edge in innovation, entrepreneurship and attracting global talent in an increasingly knowledge-based economy.

Striking the right balance between freedom of expression and reasonable limits on harmful content is a challenge that will require ongoing public dialogue, transparent institutions and robust democratic safeguards. As the primary battlefield in the global struggle for human rights shifts to the digital realm, the fight for internet freedom is only just beginning. With the help of encryption, decentralized networks and sheer human ingenuity, the quest for access to information and a plurality of viewpoints will not stop anytime soon.