Wednesday, January 20, 2016

How Online Censorship Works: A Guest Post By Cassie Phillips

The internet is pervasive in our daily lives, but equally pervasive is online censorship and surveillance. You've likely come head to head with this in the past. For example, have you ever tried to access a site and received an error message that had nothing to do with your internet connection? Or have you ever seen ads targeted toward you based on something you wrote to a friend in an email message? There's a lot of information about web surveillance and censorship laws and scandals in the news these days. Here are ten things you should know:

1. The government censors a lot of content.

From political messages to pornography, there's a lot of information that the government doesn't want you to have access too. There are different stages of censorship. Some content is taken down before it can spread; other content is hidden from view. Actually, you may not even realize everything that's being censored. Of course, we all know the big sites that are blocked; often sites that offer illegal downloads, mature content, social networking, etc. But there's a lot more to it than that.

2. They do this in a variety of ways.

In the past, you may have encountered a message saying that a specific site is being censored. But what you may not realize is that governments can also act in stealthier ways, asking search engines to remove sites from their search results or quietly taking down sites altogether so that you might not even realize those sites exist. During times of protest, governments might even black out the whole internet by disconnecting services.

3. This happens all over the world.

While we all like to think that our governments are wonderful and would never do anything like this to us, the truth is that web censorship happens all over the world. The US has been in the news frequently due to its heavy-handed internet monitoring, but other countries have also passed and implemented legislation that limits what you can do online. Australia, for example, has recently introduced laws to limit access to sites where copyright infringement is a known issue, which means most torrenting sites are blocked, even if you're looking to share or download legal content.

4. There's no set expiration date on the data collected about you.

Part of the problem with internet surveillance is that a lot of it is being done without warrants and without anyone really knowing just what is happening. The newness of this whole situation means that there are very few laws governing what the government can and can't do with your information, and that there's often no timeline for when they decide your browsing history is no longer important enough to hang on to.

5. It's meant to protect you…-ish.

A lot of government censorship is well-intentioned—things such as keeping kids from viewing inappropriate content or tracking suspected criminals. That said, there are a lot of nuances to what's done on the internet, and sweeping gestures such as the Australian government's desire to cut out all sites with any link to copyright infringement often do more to penalize the innocent than deter the guilty.

6. Not all censorship is done by the government.

If you've ever tried to access Netflix or Hulu from abroad or encountered a YouTube video that wasn't available in your region, you've seen the effect of geo-restricted sites, which check out your IP address and determine if content is allowed in your region—again, often because of potential copyright infringement. Targeted advertising is also often targeted because email companies survey your emails and look for keywords in your correspondence. And your internet service provider sees plenty of information about you too. Even if you trust the government to perform surveillance, the fact that a company is watching you as well can be a little unnerving.

7. The internet was intended to be free.

Of course, the government is there to protect people; that's a good thing. But why should a government in another country be able to tell you that you can't read a specific blogger's site? Or why should your own country be able to tell you that you can't access material that is freely available in another country? Doesn't that seem just a tad unfair?

8. Feeling uncomfortable about censorship does not make you the enemy.

There are lots of people who feel as if they're doing something unpatriotic if they feel uncomfortable about having the government snooping through their browser history. After all, if you're not up to anything illegal, you've got nothing to hide, right? But if you're doing not doing something illegal, why should you be under surveillance at all? Your government shouldn't automatically treat you as though you were guilty!

9. There are ways to bypass restrictions.

Fortunately, if you're trying to access blocked content, there is one tool you can use—a VPN. VPNs will hide your IP address, getting you around those pesky geo-restrictions, and limit what information is available to the government, your internet service provider, and the sites that you visit, meaning that overall you'll have a more secure browsing experience. They'll also help protect you against potential hackers.

10. Circumventing censorship measures is (not always) illegal.

Best of all, the use of a VPN is, in most cases, not illegal. You'll want to read up on local laws before installing one because there are some places (e.g. the UAE) where even the use of a VPN is illegal, but in Australia, the US, and many other places, there's nothing criminal about using a VPN.

There's plenty of more information about web censorship available, but that's most of the important information. If you're aware of the fact that surveillance and censorship goes on, you can take steps to make sure you can access the content that you need as well as start to minimize the risk that you might do something that leads to unpleasant consequences.

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