The Many Forms of Internet Censorship

Many countries engage in some form of internet censorship, whether it is in the form of banning an online community or a full-blown censoring of popular websites such as YouTube or Wikipedia. Internet censorship is defined as “control or suppression of the publishing or accessing of information on the Internet.” Countries vary in how strict or lax the control is over the Internet, but even the most lax countries still target certain websites such as religion-related sites or social networking sites, and ban them accordingly. The censoring of the Internet has brought about different resources for accessing restricted sites, mainly in the form of circumventors, such as anonymous proxy servers.

In 2006, Reporters without Borders published a list of 13 Enemies of the Internet including: Belarus, Burma, China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam. These countries practice the most extreme form of Internet censorship and often retaliate against citizens who violate censorship laws. The OpenNet Initiative (ONI) also uses a classification system and categorizes countries as pervasive, substantial, nominal, and watchlist. Pervasive includes countries that practice the most extreme cases of censorship, especially banning websites with political content. Many of the Internet users can be certain to face imprisonment for even visiting these websites. A partial list of nations in this category includes: Iran, Burma, and China. Substantial includes countries such as: South Korea, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia. Nominal countries include: Australia, Canada, and India. Watchlist countries include: Morocco, Norway and Russia.

Another method for classification is based on what content is blocked by certain countries. Websites classified as “political” include content that strays from the political view of the government. This category also includes human rights, religion, or other social causes that restrictive governments attempt to control. “Social” sites are related to sexuality, gambling, drugs and other subjects that could be deemed as “offensive” by a nation. The “conflict/security” category focuses on sites that relate to wars/skirmishes, dissent, or other types of conflicts. The “internet tools” classification includes websites used to circumvent censorship, anonymous proxy surfing, language translation websites, or sites that promote the use of Instant Messaging or E-mail services. Countries may block some or all of these types of websites, depending on the content and the strictness of the regime.

Aside from restrictive governments, many companies censor and monitor the Internet in their offices. Most websites are blocked that are considered leisure, and not related to the employees’ working environment. IT departments may block certain domains or track the Internet usage because employees have no reason to be using certain websites during office hours. Again, circumventors and other such software can be used to gain access to blocked websites, but IT departments are quick to act so that they can stop the more popular proxy sites from being used.

Internet censoring also comes in other forms such as portal censorship or online community moderation. Portal censoring is basically when a portal, such as of Google, excludes websites that would, under normal circumstances, be included in a search. The portals may censor sites for a number of different reasons, particularly when required by law. The censored sites are basically hidden and made invisible to an average user. The other from of censorship comes from moderators or administrators of online communities blocking content that they feel should not be posted in their forums, or that do not follow the forum’s rules and guidelines.

While governments and businesses are restricting the way people use the Internet, new methods are always being created to circumvent restrictions and gain access to censored websites. With many restrictive governments using imprisonment as a method to implement censorship, it is becoming more important to be able to circumvent the censors. A popular method for circumventing blocks is The Onion Router, also known as TOR. This service allows users to stay invisible against traffic analysis by bouncing the network connection over various gateways around the world. Users do not have direct access to the site they visit, instead they are sent through a series of connections, called relays. The relays are individually encrypted and sent along to the next gateway until it reaches the exit node and the user can then see the website that was requested. A third method for circumventing blocks is Java Anon Proxy, commonly referred to as JAP, which allows users to choose which network, run by independent organizations, to surf through. Once chosen, the data stream is scrambled and mixed with other users’ data streams so that anyone trying to steal or restrict the data flow is confused by the muddled stream they see. Psiphon software was directly created to circumvent the tight Internet censorship of countries such as China and Cuba. The traffic between clients and servers is encrypted as the data is being transferred. Users in countries with tight censorship can log in and send a request to a server located in another country to gain access to blocked websites. Another method called sneakernets allows people to transfer electronic data, such as computer files, by manually carrying them on portable storage devices, such as USB drives or CDs. This method could also be used in conjunction with other methods, since the encrypted data can be sent as usual but the encryption keys could be delivered by sneakernet. Regardless of government restrictions and censorship, this data can be moved freely since it does not travel over a network at all. One of the most popular methods to access censored content is by using anonymous proxy servers. These are usually the easiest to find and use, since they can be found in abundance by doing a simple Google or Yahoo search. Anonymous surfing software and websites allow a user to hide their IP address and surf freely. A good proxy will also encrypt your connection so that anyone trying to spy on the flow of data will not be able to see what is being sent and received.

Internet censorship varies in seriousness depending on the country or business, but ultimately a user’s privacy rights are being taken away by tight controls over Internet usage. Many different services are available to help a user take back their privacy and avoid being censored or spied on by restrictive agencies. A user should always be familiar with their surroundings and know how extreme or lax the Internet usage policies are before implementing any of the anonymous surfing services. Policies will be different and range dramatically depending on location so knowing the environment is important to staying protected while surfing the Internet.