The internet is not the bastion of free speech that many envision it as. In fact, it’s far from it. Dozens of countries have strict controls on the flow of online information.
The most common targets of censorship are news, politics, civil rights, religion, drugs, gambling and pornography. There are three ways a government can keep people from accessing specific websites:
The first method is to prevent almost all citizens from accessing the internet altogether. The people that do somehow get online are treated to government propaganda sites or a heavily censored version of the internet. The limitation of this method is that it will seriously inhibit the economy by denying firms access to technology. This explains why communist regimes like Cuba and North Korea favour this approach.
The second method is to order websites to shut down. This is very effective when the computer or company operating the website is located domestically. The limitation of this method is that it is completely ineffective against foreign sites. A country can send a threatening letter to a foreign site, but will have little success trying to apply their laws in a different country. This is the method favoured by first-world countries as well as some of the most ruthless regimes.
The final method of censorship is to block access to websites. This can be done through the use of filters that restrict specific websites, terms, graphics and other criteria. Alternatively a filter may block everything but approved websites. Depending on the country, the user might see a message informing him or her that the government has blocked the site or might receive an error that would imply the website is having technical difficulties.
Using this method, a government can filter content nationally by forcing all internet traffic entering and exiting the country to pass through hardware equipped with filtering software, or forcing internet service providers to install filters on their computers. The problem with this approach is that some websites that the government wants blocked will be allowed, and vice-versa.
Filtering is the most technically complex method, and forms the backbone of internet censorship in more industrialized governments. China undoubtedly has the most sophisticated of such systems. According to Reporters without Borders, some 58 “cyber-dissidents” are imprisoned worldwide, 49 of which are in China. The government even requires blog providers and forums to use keyword filtering to restrict what users can discuss.
Iran, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, South Korea, Pakistan and Jordan, among others, also use filtering software to varying degrees. For example, Jordon only has a few websites blocked, whereas the United Arab Emirates has blocked an estimated 400,000 sites. This type of system also allows governments to easily monitor users’ online activities so they can intimidate and imprison those whom they consider a threat. Many such governments heavily monitor and control internet caf