Internet censorship defined
Internet censorship is a term that refers to the practice, typically conducted by a national or regional government, of deliberately hindering the general public's access to certain websites or online information. Countries that censor the Internet do so on a number of different levels and using a variety of means, including DNS tampering, IP blocking, and keyword filtering. Organizations such as the Open Net Initiative, Freedom House, and Reporters Without Borders monitor trends in internet censorship in different countries.
Internet censorship is a significant issue, even in countries with the most internet users or the highest internet speeds. Freedom House estimated in 2022 that 4.5 billion people on Earth have access to the internet—and that in 76% of those countries, individuals have been arrested or imprisoned for content they've posted online. Censorship suppresses freedom of speech and can enable human rights violations. It can also disrupt the ability of people, groups, and even governments to coordinate their operations, which can be a significant hindrance in both everyday life and especially in times of war or civil unrest.
Top 10 Countries with the Worst Internet Censorship (Freedom House 2022):
- China — 10
- Myanmar — 12
- Iran — 16
- Cuba — 20
- Vietnam — 22
- Russia — 23
- Saudi Arabia — 24
- Pakistan — 26
- Egypt, Ethiopia, Uzbekistan (tie) — 27
- Belarus, United Arab Emirates (tie) — 28
Note: Scores range from 0 to 100. Higher scores are preferable. Full results follow page text.
What Countries Have the Strictest Censorship of the Internet?
Although the internet is designed to enable the free and open exchange of information, some governments do not embrace such goals and instead engage in very strict internet censorship. Countries with high levels of censorship tend to be those which are more totalitarian and/or oppressive. Such countries are typically wary of political dissent and of losing control of the media narrative, which is often state-influenced and heavy with propaganda and/or biased reporting. As such, these countries may censor any unapproved information or websites and seek to disrupt the citizens' ability to use the internet to organize any sort of opposition.
China is famous for having strict internet censorship, voted as the worst in the world by Freedom House in 2022 (and for the seven previous years). Chinese internet censors are very active, blocking some sites entirely and often censoring content almost immediately. Furthermore, the Chinese internet censors are known to monitor what individuals say and post. Several other countries are known to have similarly strict internet censorship, including India, Iran, and North Korea.
Methods of internet censorship and their direct effects:
- DNS tampering — Internet users in the given country are blocked from viewing entire websites. DNS stands for Domain Name System and DNS tampering refers to the removal of domain names from a country’s list of accessible or available websites.
- IP blocking — Works similarly to DNS tampering in reverse. Instead of blocking some websites from all users, IP blocking prevents specific user devices or IP addresses from accessing certain material.
- Keyword filtering — Specific words are filtered out of a nation’s search engines to prevent access to content related to that term.
In addition to the above techniques and more, many countries perform ongoing surveillance of individual users' web accounts and activity, which can lead to their harassment, arrest, or additional oppressive treatment at the hands of government agencies.
Open Net Initiative
The Open Net Initiative divides internet censorship into categories based on the degree to which censorship is happening. However, as some countries' censorship impairs visibility into that country's practices, it is sometimes difficult to determine just how deeply a given country's censorship goes.
- Pervasive censorship — A significant amount of content in many categories is blocked.
- Substantial censorship — Fewer categories of content are blocked but the filtering is heavy.
- Selective censorship — The government will decide on specific websites or categories to censor. Note that the censoring of certain subjects or sites (for example, those that promote child pornography) may be widely approved by society and considered protective rather than oppressive.
- Suspected censorship — A country behaves as if it oppresses freedom of information flow but it is difficult to detect
- No evidence of censorship — A nation permits most if not all internet activity.
Countries that censor the internet
Countries that censor the internet typically do so for political and social purposes. Specifically, they endeavor to prevent their residents from speaking freely, which could lead to criticism of the government, from accessing information that could inspire people to act out against the government, and from using the internet to coordinate such efforts.
The organization Reporters Without Borders divides countries that censor the internet into two main categories: Enemies of the Internet and Under Surveillance countries. Enemies of the Internet are those countries which use internet censorship as part of a larger effort to suppress and control their populace. Under Surveillance countries are on the "watch list", but haven't yet reached full "enemy" status. The list was most recently updated in 2014:
Enemies of the Internet (Source: Reporters Without Borders):
- North Korea
- Saudi Arabia
- United Arab Emirates
- United Kingdom
- United States