Living Free Online: A Basic Guide to Internet Censorship and Privacy
In order to keep our global society open and dynamic, the general principles of online freedom must be upheld, and the average person kept as informed as possible. There is no acceptable justification for government or organizational censorship of the internet. They should not unilaterally get to decide to shut off access to useful tools and networks.
Yet online freedom is a rather broad concept and a moderately difficult one to master. It is important to investigate its nature and importance, but it is difficult to know where to start.
Here are some concepts, terms and tools that you should be familiar with then discussing or thinking about your online freedom:
Regional Blocks and Restrictions
Depending on the region you live in or are currently located at, you might very well run into some problems with geo-locations and regional restrictions. They can occur with just about any type of service and website and can be brought on by anything from copyright issues to a government simply wanting to block a type of website.
A few examples include:
- DRM restrictions in video games that only allow key activation in select countries.
- Netflix not allowing for its service to be used outside of your home region.
- Network players (such as the BBC iplayer) not allowing streaming from outside of the UK.
Government Censorship and Blocking
Quite possibly the greatest enemy to online and digital freedom currently is direct and open censorship by various government entities. Whether through passed legislation, dictates from authoritarian powers or regulations created by obscure committees, it is a direct attack on free speech and should be countered as much as possible. Nearly all governments engage in it, and it is up to the average person to know what to look for.
It often occurs when internet service providers (ISP) are told by governments which websites they need to block. The domain names are then blocked or the content of the website is deleted when the site is shut down by its host. This can vary from country to country, but the result is the destruction of a small corner of the internet that everyone uses.
Net neutrality, in a nutshell, is the idea that all websites and content should be treated the same way over the internet. For example, imagine you are trying to load a small, unknown blog and a massive site such as Amazon or YouTube. If net neutrality was implemented, then how quickly each page loads should only be determined by the amount of data contained on each page alone.
In the past, internet service providers would slow down some websites they didn’t like, to the point where people couldn’t realistically use them, letting the ISP have way too much power over the internet. This was a direct affront to the ideals of an internet free on censorship. A website could be hindered to the point of uselessness.
Luckily, in some nations, net neutrality is becoming or has already become the law. Be sure to keep watch over what your government is doing to make or break this idea.
Virtual Private Networks
Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) were originally used by businesses so their employees to work from home. The technology has been adapted for consumer use and is now a service that allows people to connect to an offsite secure server using an encrypted connection. This connection allows people to remain safe online and appear as though they’re using the internet from nearly anywhere in the world. They frequently are used to maintain safely on otherwise dangerous public networks.
All of this means that you will be able to get around a lot of the barriers created to censor the internet. No one will be able to track your browsing or what you download as well, so you can freely obtain any data that you wish. If you were to use a professional-grade VPN, you wouldn’t have to worry so much about online tracking and data interception.
For an example of VPNs in action, not too long ago laws were passed in Australia that effectively blocked torrenting sites (potentially legal and illegal). The Australian online community reacted by increasing their VPN usage dramatically to keep using said websites (which were still around, just regionally blocked).
If you spend any time on the internet, you have probably heard the word “proxy” before, but you might not necessarily know what it means. It is a server that will handle requests for you and therefore keep you anonymous. Think of it as you asking someone to ask for something for you instead of you asking for it in person.
Now you are probably wondering what makes a VPN so different from a proxy server, and that is an excellent question. The main difference lies in the security that is built into the VPN and isn’t necessarily in the proxy. In addition to this, a proxy server might require configuration and might not be able to access as much content that a VPN would. The proxy is, however, often cheaper than the average cost of a VPN.
Notes for the Future
Also note that, within the field of technology, there is such an environment of change, making it simply impossible to go over everything once and be set for the rest of your days. Expect new tools to come out. Also expect new oppressive tactics that need to be countered.
Think of how quickly technology has changed within your lifetime. If none of these tools or concepts are at least possibly replaced within five years, it would be very surprising. The best thing you can do to guarantee your digital freedom is to stay on top of what is out there and what tools are being developed. There are many helpful tech communities and blogs available to help keep you up to date.
People need the very best tools and information in order to succeed successfully online. The above will get you started and serve you well, but remember to keep a lookout for innovation and to tell your friends and colleagues about some of the dangers they might face online. You might want to do that by sharing this article with them along with your thoughts.