Online censorship is an increasingly controversial topic in today’s hyper-connected world, and the issue ramped up even further in 2017. Discussion surrounding the use of state-sponsored actors to manipulate the U.S. election, as well as the increase of hostility toward journalists in the United States and the rest of the world, brought the proliferation of misinformation and manipulation techniques to the forefront of the news cycle.
Freedom House’s Freedom of the Net 2017 reported a growth in several significant trends contributing to the lack of online freedom, including the increase of technical attacks on independent media outlets, physical attacks on individual journalists and the government restriction of live video.
In addition to direct methods of censorship, the use of content manipulation tactics, including the use of automated bots and paid pro-government commentators, rose in the past year. This type of manipulation is much more difficult to detect than traditional methods of censorship, which makes it harder for the average user to determine if they’re forming opinions and making decisions from factual news or news created by state-sponsored commentators.
While access to the internet in democratic countries may seem like a given, less than one-fourth of the world’s internet users reside in countries where the internet is technically designated “free.” Is your country one of them?
The way that countries censor their citizens is not always the same. Below, we take a look at the different methods of censorship that countries use to limit the information available to their citizens.
Countries that block political, social or religious content
These countries block or filter domains, URLS or keywords with the goal of limiting access to specific content.
Countries that block social media/communication apps
These countries either block entire social media/communication applications or have temporarily or permanently blocked the key functions of these applications with the goal of preventing communication and information sharing.
Countries that arrest, detain or imprison bloggers or ICT users for posting political/social content
These countries have arrested, detained or imprisoned individuals as an act of retaliation for digital expression. (Brief detentions for interrogation are not reflected.)
Countries that use pro-government commentators
There are strong indications that these countries employ paid individuals to manipulate the discussion online.
Access to the internet has helped spread information, connect cultures and encourage the exchange of ideas in a way that would not be possible otherwise. It’s also created a dilemma for countries that are notoriously strict on the information they allow their citizens to access.
As such, some countries have gone to extreme lengths to censor their citizens’ access to the internet, including blocking certain social media apps, censoring social or political discussion, and arresting and prosecuting bloggers or social and political commentators. In 2017, countries also increased the use of content manipulation tactics, which are difficult for users to detect and difficult for watchdog organizations to deter.
It’s important to be aware of how your country censors or monitors your access to the internet and, as always, take steps to protect yourself and your data when going online. For most people going online in a country with high censorship, a VPN is the most effective way to access blocked content and protect yourself while doing it.
In addition to letting you access blocked websites, a VPN protects from unwanted attention from authorities by hiding your IP address and web activities. Some high-censorship countries are clamping down on VPN use, so if you live somewhere with strict internet laws, it’s important to read independent reviews to see which services work there – for example, which VPN services work in China, a notoriously strict country.
While a VPN is sufficient for the vast majority of people, anyone who believes accessing blocked content could put their life in danger should also use Tor and encrypted messaging services to conceal their communications and physical location.