The Internet Isn’t Really Free – Who Is Censoring It & Why

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internet censorshipIn any free, democratic society, citizens take pride in the fact that they have free access to information. This is true in many countries, where citizens have won hard-fought battles for independence. It is something that is sacred here in the U.S. where I live. However, the idea that the Internet is completely free – a wide-open source of all sides of any argument – is actually a farce.

The concept is noble, and lots of young geeks during the early days of the Internet, celebrated the birth of this “Information Super Highway”. It was a new world, where anyone could publish their thoughts and opinions on any matter, and get heard by everyone in the world. The Internet was supposed to blow open barriers and tear down walls.

For the most part at the beginning, it did. However, through the years, there have been more and more elements of censorship slowly creeping into the mix. Everyone is under the impression that the Internet offers free, bi-directional access to information, but whether it’s at work, school, home, or at the library – there is someone seeking to block what you are able to see when you search the Internet for information.

How The Internet Gets Censored

It’s no secret that I write a whole lot about the Great Firewall of China, and love seeing articles here at MUO like Justin’s tips on checking if your website is blocked in China, or reviews of apps like ChinaChannel to expose censorship there.

But really, is it just China? Can we really say that we experience a truly open Internet?  If we did, then why would we need articles like Chris’ article on how people can access blocked websites,  and James’ article on how to outsmart the Pirate Bay block?

In this article, I’m going to cover the four ways that your access to the Internet can be censored, and who is doing the censoring.

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Lawyers Control Who Stays Online

There is a little-known activity going on out there on the Internet, and ultimately it’s an activity that is affecting what information you get to learn about when you search the web.

A while back, I received one of my first legal threats. If you run a website long enough and if you cover somewhat controversial topics, you’re bound to get one.  Eventually, no matter now much evidence you accumulate and no matter how factual you keep your articles – someone, somewhere, will take issue with something you’ve written or with your website in general.

internet censorship

In my situation, I was rather shocked to learn that someone would take such an approach – sending out a legal threat rather than just directly emailing me to discuss the issue. I’m a very friendly guy and nine times out of ten I may alter opinion-pieces I’ve written if someone can show that the evidence collected is invalid.

However, along with the ranks of other people that consider themselves to be information freedom-fighters, removing any information from the Internet isn’t something I take very lightly. However, there is a general feeling among small website owners out there that legal threats lead to expensive lawsuits meant to “destroy” the little guy.

Using these threats, larger companies will pay $50 to $100 to have these legal letters sent out – letters that amount to nothing less than outright corporate bullying – forcing information to be removed from the Internet when it reflect poorly upon the company or the person in question. In this way, corporations use lawyers to censor the Internet.

The National Firewall

It is an unfortunate situation that not everyone in the world can access the same websites as everyone else. Yes, there are governments that block access to websites that the government itself deems as “inappropriate” for its citizens.

I have always focused primarily on China when I’ve written about Internet censorship, because the firewall works so blatantly against websites and blogs that feature content that is negative toward the Communist government – particularly if those sites are created by the Chinese themselves.

web censorship

Curious what other countries censor the Internet for their citizens, I referenced Wikipedia, Techdirt and the Guardian. All three agree that the following ten countries are the worst offenders when it comes to censoring information on the Internet. (1) (2) (3)

1. China
2. Iran
3. United Arab Emirates
3. Saudi Arabia
4. Burma (Myanmar)
5. Bahrain
6. Vietnam
7. Yemen
8. Syria
9. Sudan
10. Uzbekistan

Not too many surprises there. It may also be no surprise that the United States, Germany, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom – to name a few – have no evidence of government Internet censorship.

However, it was surprising to me to learn that India has evidence of selective filtering in four categories, Italy and South Korea have selective social filtering, and Mexico has selective “conflict/security” filtering.

School & Work Censorship

I think it’s fairly obvious how writers at MUO feel about Internet censorship. We’ve offered articles on how to bypass firewalls at school or work, or how to unblock specific web pages from behind a strong firewall.

But, who gets to decide what websites are “inappropriate” at school or at work? Obviously, firewall administrators do their best to prevent employees or students from wasting time on the Internet, but at my last job, I was shocked to discover during my lunchtime news reading, that a left-wing activist’s website had been blocked and listed as a “hate” site.

I also discovered that a site with views no more extreme than Rush Limbaugh had been blocked as an “extremist” site.

web censorship

These filter rules really appeared to apply more to the personal beliefs of the firewall administrator than to the desire to keep employees from “wasting time”. Then again, if you are using someone else’s network bandwidth, then you have to be willing to accept that they are going to censor that private bandwidth however they see fit.

Will Your ISP Censor the Internet?

I saved this form of censorship for last because it is the latest underhanded effort that corporations are using to take control of the Internet.

Unfortunately, Internet Service Providers like Verizon or Comcast want to start giving preferential bandwidth treatment (for faster loading), to certain websites that pay the Internet provider for that privilege.

In the United States,  the FCC has been fighting diligently to prevent such back-handed censorship of the Internet from taking place. The FCC has been defending its rules in court to fight for “Net Neutrality”, which requires Internet bandwidth providers to treat all Internet traffic equally – regardless of where that traffic is going to or coming from.

internet censorship

However, companies like Verizon think that they have “editorial discretion” to allow some content while blocking other content.  In other words, they could make it so that website owners that pay them get more exposure for their content than you can, if you can’t afford to pay for equal bandwidth. It amounts to censorship of the poor.

The FCC argues that ISPs are not editors – they are conduits just like electricity or phone service providers. (4)

It seems that while citizens in countries like China and Iran have to deal with heavy-handed censorship of the Internet by the government, citizens in supposedly “free” capitalistic countries may be facing an even greater threat than censorship by the government — censorship by the corporations that control access to that Internet.

As you can tell, freedom of access to information is an important issue for all of us here at MUO, and I’m sure you have your own opinion on the matter. We’d love to hear it. What is censorship like where you live and where you work? Share your thoughts in the comments section below (if you’re allowed to, that is).

References: Techdirt, Guardian, Wikipedia, Save The Internet

Image Credits: Jose Gil /, Censored Via Shutterstock, Film Reel Via Shutterstock, Escape From Glass Via Shutterstock Censored Via Shutterstock

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Comments (27)
  • Greg Wolbrette

    It is true. In democratic countries the important battles are waged over public opinion. A healthy and free civilization has an informed public. However, an uninformed citizen base ultimately results in constraint of liberties, possibly more insidious in nature than heavy-handed and obvious measures. The most effective prisons are those that confine with invisible mechanisms.

  • Casey

    “It may also be no surprise that the United States, Germany, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom – to name a few – have no evidence of government Internet censorship.”

    With that comment you have lost ALL my respect and trust.

    The UK and Australia ACTIVELY censor internet content.

    You are liars, just promoting this bullshiit myth of Western “freedom”. Probably told to do it by their respective governments.

    MakeUsOf used to be a trustworthy and respected site.. no you are no better than The Daily Mail!.

    • Ryan Dube

      Actually, the list was from the Guardian and two other sources (see the citations in the article) – so apparently you’ve lost all of your respect and trust for the Guardian newspaper. It reported that those governments were not found to be practicing censorship of the Internet – at least beyond the sort of monitoring of illegal content like kiddie-porn and piracy, like James mentioned above.

      Also, Freedom isn’t a myth.

    • dragonmouth

      “Also, Freedom isn’t a myth.”

      “Freedom” may not be a myth but it is an abstract idea just as “communism” is. Russia, China and the rest of the “communist” countries were not “communist” according to the definition of the word. There were nothing more than dictatorships in which the government owned everything.

      You are only “free” to do and/or say only what meets with the approval of the Powers That Be. Just check the law statutes. How many of them prevent you from doing or saying things that do not meet with the approval of some pressure group? How many times does Political Correctness trump common sense?

  • muotechguy

    Technically the UK has a censor too, but I believe it’s only used to block kiddie porn. Not sure how it works, but probably just a central list that all ISPs must subscribe too.

    • Casey

      It blocks suspected “warez” sites and mass blocks filehosts if a single naughty file is found.

      They use a cannon to do what a single BB shot should do.

      It’s a LOT more than just ‘kiddie porn’ (which is not anywhere on http access – it’s all peer-to-peer).

      All of this censorship is supposed ot be for ‘good’ reasons, but it’s all about control and restriction of access to information.

    • Muo TechGuy

      Any evidence for this or further reading? To be honest, I’ve never come across anything that I would think to be blocked by it. Do the sites just 404 then, or there a specific error?

  • D


    Your article is a very interesting, informative,and, timing wise, an important one, given the ever accelerating abuse of the purpose of why the internet was invented, or more accurately, developed. The concept was as simple as it was noble. In 1989, while working at CERN, Tim Berners-Lee invented a network-based implementation of the hypertext concept ( Wikipedia, but is public knowledge ). The application was to facilitate the need for scientific information exchange. But, he recognized the higher humanitarian gift it could offer, if the world (WWW) were to be able to use it. What was that gift? That gift was not meant to be a way of selling or merely communicating and aggrandizing yourself (YouTube, My site, Facebook, etc.) with others, It was simply to free the access to/of knowledge, and exchange educational information. Just like the TV, it was potentially a blessing to mankind, in that it could have been used to elevate the human condition. It is being perverted into a marketing devise. Not just for money, but also for power and ego. I will stop my idealistic rant, and mention a few things I think relative to your article. With respect to governmental firewalls. My opinion is a little different than yours as to the motives behind them. I should preface this by saying a little about myself, in hopes that the reader can determine my bias, if it’s not already obvious. I am a 64 year old white, middle class, medical imaging technologist. I was born, reared, and lived all my life in the Los Angeles / Orange county area of California, without any political party affiliations or belief that any of them are mostly beneficial. That said, I fast forward to my current place of residence, China. Yes Virginia, there is a Great China Firewall. However, the filtering is not so much about the political system and ideology control, as it is economically oriented. I have been here for almost a year now, and lived in a lower income area of Qingdao, in Shandong province, which is about 200 miles S/SE of Beijing. I have had extensive observational and direct involvement experiences with the locals and the 3 main levels of government, that all who live in China must deal with in their daily lives, and the internet. I am an online student at Ashford University, in Iowa, working on my B.A. in English and have had considerable difficulty doing so. Some of the problems existed while I was in the states, and still remain. But assignments requiring YouTube content (yes, they do have some very redeeming content) or research are impossible to get, unless you have a VPN that they haven’t already figured out how to render helpless. However, much of the political and even adult content websites of anywhere in the world are easily accessed, while medical, free services or educational sites are blocked. At first, I got around this by accessing my U.S. computer, via remote access. But the firewall slowed the line speed so much, that it was really visually annoying. The VPN is the way to go if make sure your browser settings prevent redirecting. I digress. My point is, China officials are are more concerned with keeping the Capitalism in their society strong. Yes, Capitalism…with a large “C”. The advertising and selling of goods here is on a level outsiders can’t even dream of. It is far more intense than the United States, Canada, Mexico, England, Japan, or Korea. Again, I have lived in and visited those countries. The trade off is, the people are actually taken care of by the parliamentarian structured government (yes, it is) and the ethos of the culture is basically to ignore the policies they don’t agree with. But that’s a whole other article to write. From my place on the ground, these are the reasons here. And, I believe there are mixed reasons of keeping the control of the citizenry, that motivate some of the other countries that you have on your list. I believe, that’s because they’re poor countries, and the people in power, want to stay in power. In short, Governments, in general, are controlled by corporations and wealthy people who wield their weapons of power. Even here in China. But, there is one difference here. That difference is, unbridled greed or scams are not tolerated. Individuals or companies who steal or charge too much, do go to jail, and pay heavy penalties. It is because of this, and only this, that the internet is being censored. It’s all about the money. The strange thing is, money only has the value that we agree in our mind that is has. It’s a fantasy. A fiction of the mind. Everything else is advertising about what a government is or is not. As a wise man once said, advertising and money coveting is the bane of mankind. Who was that masked man?

  • Timo Reimerdes

    I think more civilized countries should go the Chile and Netherlands way: Put net neutrality into the law.

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