As Indian govt plans a web filter, let's see how Internet censorship works in Iran, China and Cuba

Let us take a look at some countries where Internet is severely controlled

The Internet censorship debate in India has been going on for some time now. But according to a latest report by Medianama, the Indian government is contemplating on using web filters to control the internet. One of the main triggers of this discussion on web filters is ban of pornographic websites and those sites which carry 'objectionable' content - a term which is open to interpretation.

The report talks about a meeting that was held at the Department of Electronics and Information Technology (Deity) where the main agenda was discussion on how a web filter can be implemented. What gives it more gravity is the fact that the meeting was attended by 23 individuals including Telecom minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, head of CERT-IN Gulshan Rai and representatives from NASSCOM, FICCI, IAMAI and so on.

We have seen random blocking of content in the past and that had led to a lot of outrage. Legit websites had to face blocks thanks to the haphazard way in which the government went about doing it couple of years back. But it looks like content filtering will continue.

Things haven't got so bad, yet. You still get access to majority of websites from across the world. You don't have to register with government agencies before you decide to start a blog. But citizens of some nations aren't that lucky. Let us see how internet censorship works in controlled regimes such as Iran, China and Cuba - three countries that always come up in the top five of any list involving internet censorship by nations.

Iran's theocratic regime controls majority of the Internet within Iran

Iran's theocratic regime controls majority of the Internet within Iran

Not much is known about how Internet is controlled in Iran, as any attempts to find that out within Iran can lead to reprisals from the government. According to a study conducted by a University of Michigan last year (for publication outside Iran of course), almost half of the top 500 sites on Alexa were censored in Iran. While pornographic sites were the first ones to face the axe under the theocratic regime, a lot of websites under the Art, Society and News categories were also blocked.

Apart from blocking entire sites, the Iranian internet filters also look for specific keywords and block those pages. The traffic passing through the Iranian firewalls, if it is not recognised, has its speed severely throttled and in certain cases gets cut off altogether. This controls circulation of news, photos and videos, which may be deemed political. During the June 2013 elections, the throttling was at its peak to prevent dissent and anti-regime propoganda, which was later relaxed. Twitter and Facebook accounts of many individuals as well as western journalists were blocked in Iran. In fact, even though political leaders use Twitter and Facebook, these sites are banned in Iran for regular people. Instagram, is the most recent addition to the list. Online messaging apps such as WeChat have also been blocked after Ayatolla Khamenei, Iran's Supreme Leader issued a fatwa banning online chatting between unrelated men and women.

A large portion of Iran's internet traffic has to go through a centralised facility which already has censorship filters in place. Government decides on the speeds that will be allowed to keep this facility from being overwhelmed with traffic. According to the report, the government had set 128kbps speed limit. Academicians could request the government for faster connections.

There have also been talks in Iran of creating their parallel internet, which will provide citizens with high-speed internet connection but where content will be fully monitored and censored. The sites will be hosted on local Iranian servers. Applications such as email, search engines and social networks will be developed by government agencies.



China employs technical as well as human elements to have a strong control over the internet


China ranks after Iran as the country which exercises the most control over the Internet. Although it is a country with the largest number of Internet users, content has to pass through a multitude of filters before it reaches the regular population. The Great Firewall of China or the Golden Shield keeps internet in China under control.

The Great Firewall, as is evident from the name basically limits access to foreign websites and it was started in the late 1990s. The Golden Shield is a domestic subset of the Great Firewall, which basically sensors domestic content and it was set up in 1998 by the Ministry of Public Security. China uses a whole bag of tricks to ensure that the population is connected to the Internet, but at the same time the control is squarely in the hands of the Chinese regime.

China censors content that is critical of the government and over the years it has mastered methods which allow it to block certain URLs or pages containing a list of banned keywords, instead of blocking entire websites hosting objectionable content. Words such as “Tiannamen Square” for instance will not throw up results on Google. In fact if a user is searching only banned words on Google, he or she will be blocked for sometime from Google. Many Internet companies in China get a regular dossier of restricted keywords. Banning blogs critical of government policies is the norm in China. Pornography websites and even messaging apps have faced routine censorship in China.

Restricting access to foreign websites, has given rise of homegrown websites in China such as Sina Weibo which is as influential as Twitter, which lets users communicate freely. Being Chinese sites, the government is able to control and censor objectionable posts easily. Apart from the lakhs of people hired by the government to monitor content online, there are other who are allegedly paid by the Communist Party to post pro-government messages on social networks.


Cuba has government run Internet cafes which only give access to censored websites. Image: Wikipedia

Cuba has government run Internet cafes which only give access to censored websites. Image: Wikipedia


Cuba may not have the same number of Internet users as say Iran or China, but it still has major censorship rules in place. According to 2013 estimates, only 25 per cent of Cubans have internet access. But majority of these internet users access the internet via government controlled Intranet which only has state-approved websites. Only 5 per cent of Cubans access open internet. The fact that all of the internet service providers are state-owned speaks volumes.

Accessing internet from home for majority of the population is unheard of. Only those who can afford it can access the internet from home. This includes government officials, doctors, engineers, Cuban govt approved journalists and so on. Rest of the population accesses it via government run cyber cafes which charge a prohibitive hourly rate. Cubans have to provide an ID to use the internet, so there is not question of anonymous internet use either. Internet speeds are slow in most places. And uploading of content can only be done by pro-government users.

Facebook and Twitter are accessible but not YouTube. Unlike China, Cuba does not have smart filters in place. Limited access and government run cafes take care of most of the censorship. Bloggers who post anti-regime content are routinely screened and may face severe punishment. But like China, there are government appointed individuals whose job it is to promote the regime's propoganda. There were even attempts to make a Cuban version of Facebook, called Red SocialThe regime even has its own version of Wikipedia.


Looking at the these three nations which top Internet censorship lists year on year, it is safe to say that Internet use in India is still relatively free from government control. But the latest meeting which is proposing web filters in India, things may just get bad. All we can do is wait and watch how the censorship drama plays out in our country and how involved will the citizens will be in the final drafting of guidelines.

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