Freedom of speech online is continually at the heart of heated debates.
Each country has varying opinions on what is illegal and what constitutes a mere taboo. But the concept of a borderless internet often clashes with local regulations, which leads to blocked and even banned content.
Censorship on political grounds is more prevalent than you may think, all in the name of promoting a safer internet experience for all types of audiences. But this affects journalists and commentators alike, and, to an extent, our world view and knowledge.
Reports like the Human Freedom Index may make you assume that democratic countries guarantee freedom of expression. But that’s not always the case, especially if consider the different landscape presented by the World Press Freedom Index stats.
Let see why and how countries end up banning websites.
Why websites get blocked
Most of the time, websites get blocked if they break legislation, and that makes sense.
But other topics are legally defined on moral grounds. For example, countries with blasphemy laws ban websites for religious reasons, including adult content.
On the list of banned materials, you can also find:
- Anti-state sentiments
- Critique against the government or ruling party
- Content depicting violence
- Hate speech
- LGBT content
- Content mentioning suicide or self-harm
- Gambling sites
- Torrenting or file-sharing sites
And not everything is a national matter. A lot of companies also block social media websites and entertainment platforms to increase productivity.
But how do Internet Service Providers (ISPs) block websites to stay in line with local legislation? Let’s take a look at their methods.
Blocking IP addresses
This is the one you’re probably most familiar with.
Governments control what they deem to be national threats, dangers to national interests, or content that contradicts people’s values.
Local ISPs have to comply with legislation and block websites that deal with topics like weapon trafficking, illicit drug selling, or terrorism.
They do this by blacklisting their IP addresses.
If you try to reach such a place, your ISP will drop your connection, causing it to fail.
For example, when you type YouTube.com in a browser, the DNS server tells your device you actually mean to access the IP 208.117. 236.69. You can then get on the video-sharing platform.
This makes it easy for the authorities to censor some websites by “deregistering” their domain. Your device won’t be able to access a DNS server anymore to get the IP for a page.
One place where DNS poisoning happens a lot is in dorm rooms. Torrent sites and streaming platforms are often unavailable without a VPN to prevent potential piracy or distractions.
Governments usually rely on keyword filtering to prevent the spread of information they deem harmful. And that’s because blocking an unsavory domain is easy, but it doesn’t stop people from chatting about a topic or creating new content around it.
However, that’s something keyword filtering can stop. By scanning all URLs, each time a targeted word is discovered inside one of them, the connection resets.
Keyword filtering is a two-edged sword. While it blocks criminal activities and makes the internet a safer place, it also allows the authorities to perpetuate taboos and censorship.
One example is the Tiananmen Square massacre, a topic that still can’t be discussed online in China.
Geo-blocking is something you’ve probably already dealt with since it’s such a popular method nowadays.
While it doesn’t block websites entirely, geo-blocking is used to hide specific content from you based on your location.
Streaming platforms generally do this by detecting the country code of your IP address. This, in turn, determines what content is available to you.
For example, based on local copyright laws, Netflix has different shows and movies available for each region, and the BBC doesn’t let people located outside the UK stream anything.
How to access blocked websites
If you want to bypass censorship and restrictions, you could try using the WayBack Machine or typing a webpage’s IP instead of the URL. But these are not fool-proof methods, and they could lead you to old versions of a website.
What you need is virtual private network software, aka a VPN.
A VPN works by hiding your IP address and all the information it encompasses, like:
- Your country
- Your region
- Your city
- Your ZIP code
- Your longitude
- Your latitude
A good VPN also hides your DNS requests, making you anonymous. And the best part is that your internet connection gets encrypted, keeping all snoopers at bay.
Such services provide VPN servers. The higher the server count, the better, giving you a wider variety of content to unblock.
For example, if you’re in a place that blocks Wikipedia, you can access it by connecting to a VPN server located in a country with fewer restrictions. And if you’re traveling and want to keep up with local news, you can go for a VPN server from your home country.
If entertainment is more of your thing, make sure you choose a VPN provider with advanced unblocking features, servers optimized for streaming.
That’s why a VPN is the best way to access blocked websites.
But what do you think? Is blocking content warranted, and under what conditions? Where lie the limits of freedom of speech? Let me know in the comments below.
Until next time, stay safe and secure!