How Internet Censorship Works

Internet Censorship at the International Level

Many countries restrict access to content on the Internet on some level. Even the United States has laws that impact the kind of information you can access on the Internet in a school or public library. Some countries go much further than that -- and a few don't allow any access to the Internet at all.

The OpenNet Initiative (ONI), an organization dedicated to informing the public about Web filtering and surveillance policies around the world, classifies Web filtering into four categories:

  • Political: Content that includes views contrary to the respective country's policies. The political category also includes content related to human rights, religious movements and other social causes
  • Social: Web pages that focus on sexuality, gambling, drugs and other subjects that a nation might deem offensive
  • Conflict/Security: Pages that relate to wars, skirmishes, dissent and other conflicts
  • Internet tools: Web sites that offer tools like e-mail, instant messaging, language translation applications and ways to circumvent censorship

Countries like the United States are fairly liberal, with policies that restrict only a few Web pages, but other countries are stricter. According to Reporters Without Borders, an organization dedicated to promoting free expression and the safety of journalists, the following countries have the strongest censorship policies:

  • Belarus
  • China
  • Cuba
  • Egypt
  • Iran
  • Myanmar
  • North Korea
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Syria
  • Tunisia
  • Turkmenistan
  • Uzbekistan
  • Vietnam

Some countries go well beyond restricting access. The Myanmar government allegedly keeps Internet cafés under surveillance with computers that automatically take screenshots every few minutes. China has an advanced filtering system known internationally as the Great Firewall of China. It can search new Web pages and restrict access in real time. It can also search blogs for subversive content and block Internet users from visiting them. Cuba has banned private Internet access completely -- to get on the Internet, you have to go to a public access point.

There are several organizations dedicated to ending Internet censorship. Find out more about them on the next page.