Internet censorship is the practice of restricting online content creation, distribution, and access. Governments or private entities may censor online materials for safety and security practices as well as suppression of free speech and governmental dissent. Internet censorship occurs at different levels across the global Internet: countries such as Australia, Canada, or Greenland have very little or none, while China, Iran, Russia, and North Korea have significant to completely government-controlled Internet restrictions.
Internet censorship in the United States
In the United States, the Internet is generally protected under the First Amendment, which claims the right to freedom of speech. Much censorship, then, is a direct violation of the First Amendment. There are a couple of things that don’t fall under this protection, mainly child pornography, which is illegal in the U.S. and considered a serious human rights violation. But in general, public Internet content is protected by the First Amendment.
Private institutions, however, are free to place limitations on employee Internet access within the building and company devices. Most businesses do this, restricting access to certain websites on company-owned computers for the purpose of protecting employees, themselves, and general productivity. This is the right of the company and is not considered a First Amendment or free speech violation.
Public schools in many states also have regulations about protecting children’s access to Internet content. These regulations sometimes require schools to set up Internet policies; some states require that school Internet content be filtered before becoming available to children.
Internet censorship has become tricky because of the proliferation of social media. Social media sites attempt to protect users from inaccurate or harmful information, but sometimes this can toe the line of censorship. Facebook encountered this problem during the COVID-19 pandemic: during spring 2020, early in the pandemic (and multiple times throughout it), Facebook removed articles and videos about COVID-19 that were shared by users. The company was trying to quell misinformation about the coronavirus, but some of the articles and videos came from doctors and other potentially legitimate sources, underscoring the challenges even with well-meaning censorship.
Facebook announced that it was struggling to keep up with reviewing content because its reviewers had migrated to working from home, and automatic blocking features had removed some of the content. The company claimed that it would reinstate content that was legitimate. That was in March 2020, and removal of content continued throughout the pandemic.
Facebook and other media sites want to remove fake news and streamline content production and sharing, but that can easily become censorship, regardless of whether the content is accurate. In the case of COVID-19, science about the pandemic and its spread was in the very early stages of discovery, which meant that Facebook was censoring content based on preliminary assumptions and hypotheses about the disease. In some cases, the content was clearly dangerous, however.
Though the Internet in the United States is relatively free from government censorship, corporations and Internet service providers have much more control over Internet content than citizens may realize. Some Internet service providers (ISPs) practice throttling, which is the severe slowdown of Internet service. Though this can happen because a user has run out of data or lacks bandwidth, it can also be the ISP’s attempt to limit (or throttle) certain website connections that may put a burden on the overall network load. Virtual private networks are a good way to prevent throttling – and they can also be used to bypass geo-blocking.
The repeal of net neutrality in 2018 also opened the door for Internet service providers to limit certain Internet content. Some organizations are still lobbying for net neutrality to be reenacted.
Global Internet censorship
China and North Korea are just two examples of countries that have strong Internet censorship policies. In China, the government blocks certain IP addresses altogether, effectively banning some websites entirely. China’s Great Firewall consists of multiple layers of networks that redirect those IP requests. Chinese citizens have extremely limited access to sources of information other than what the Chinese government deems appropriate. Virtual private networks are little to no help against these limits. In North Korea, many citizens aren’t allowed regular Internet access. This privilege is restricted to certain government workers or graduate university students. North Korean citizens are instead consistently fed media relating to their president and other positive things about the country.
The organization Reporters Without Borders has a list of countries they deem “Enemies of the Internet,” which limit Internet access and freedom of speech online.