Everything to Know About Internet Censorship and How It Affects You

We'll help you understand why certain entities restrict online access and what you can do about it.
Andrew Adams, Author
Catherine McNally, Editor
Last updated Aug 15, 2022

The internet has become a vital part of life for many around the world, but did you know, depending on the country you’re in, you may or may not have access to some websites? Regulation of internet use, or internet censorship, is prevalent in countries throughout the world. It could be mandated by the government, your workplace, or by an internet provider.

When you think of internet censorship, you might think about countries such as China which heavily regulate internet access for citizens. However, online censorship can be something as simple as parental controls blocking inappropriate websites or a coffee shop limiting access to sites it deems inappropriate.

In 2018, Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web, did an interview with Vanity Fair magazine. He discussed how the internet has changed over the years and where it is heading. The magazine posed an important question about corporate and governmental censorship:

“The forces that Berners-Lee unleashed nearly three decades ago are accelerating, moving in ways no one can fully predict. And now, as half the world joins the web, we are at a societal inflection point: Are we headed toward an Orwellian future where a handful of corporations monitor and control our lives? Or are we on the verge of creating a better version of society online, one where the free flow of ideas and information helps cure disease, expose corruption, reverse injustices?”

Years after the article, internet freedoms have changed and access has become more restricted. A 2021 study from Freedom House showed that the internet became more restricted for the 11th year in a row. Freedom House is a nonprofit organization that researches issues related to “democracy, political rights, and civil liberties.”

As we ask critical questions about internet censorship, let’s understand what censorship looks like around the world and how it affects everyday users.

In this article
What is internet censorship?
How does internet censorship work?
What countries have no internet censorship?
What countries have the most internet censorship?
3 ways to avoid internet censorship
Internet censorship FAQs
Bottom line

What is internet censorship?

According to Security.org, “Internet censorship is the practice of prohibiting or suppressing certain online content.”

Strict internet censorship from one’s government can limit freedom of expression; however, not all instances of internet censorship are bad. Sometimes, censorship is used to protect children from dangerous content online or it may be used to block known cybersecurity threats from your device or network.

What’s blocked?

The topics or things being censored can vary depending on the entity who created the censorship. For instance, a company may ban social media sites from its network to ensure employees are not spending time on those platforms. A country may block types of speech to limit fake news or for political gain.

Topics of internet censorship can include:

  • Politics and power
  • Obscene or inappropriate content
  • Social media
  • News media
  • Gambling sites
  • National security

Where does censorship happen?

Censorship happens in many different places. The government may restrict someone from accessing certain information, or it may be your place of work blocking shopping sites to keep employees on task.

Other places where censorship may happen:

  • Schools that limit access to porn or inappropriate content
  • Parents using parental controls to block access to certain content
  • Businesses restricting access on public networks

Net neutrality and censorship concerns

Net neutrality is the idea that internet service providers (ISPs) should provide access to all online content regardless of the source. Some in favor of net neutrality worry that without a policy in place, ISPs will censor content or slow internet traffic for certain sites.

How does internet censorship work?

Internet censorship can happen in many different ways. One of the most popular ways to restrict access is by blocking website IP addresses, which are sets of numbers that tell a site’s or device’s location. This tells your device to avoid certain IP addresses that have been censored. These IP addresses may be blocked by an internet service provider, a business, or a government entity.

Another way to restrict access is based on keywords. This technique is often used in parental controls. Keyword restrictions look for specific words that may indicate something is inappropriate.

There are many other ways to censor information on the internet. Some organizations use firewalls to filter and block content based on protocols, ports, network addresses, source IP addresses, or the destination IP address.

What countries have no internet censorship?

According to its annual study, in 2021, Freedom House named Canada and Iceland as the highest-ranked countries based on internet freedoms. Other countries such as the U.S., India, Australia, and the countries that form the European Union have limited censorship.

Although these countries have limited or no internet censorship, internet service providers, companies, and other entities can still limit access to individual networks.

What countries have the most internet censorship?

China is commonly the worst country for internet censorship. Other countries with the most restricted internet access include:

  • Russia: Recently, Russia increased its censorship during its invasion of Ukraine. The Russian government blocked news and social media sites from foreign countries
  • Saudi Arabia: The government blocks violent content, pornography, drugs, and gambling. It often blocks pro-democracy websites and human rights organizations.
  • North Korea: All domestic media is run by the North Korean government, limiting access to information. Access to the internet is limited to government officials and some university students.

Examples of internet censorship

Many countries around the world block or restrict torrents. Torrents are a way to share files peer to peer, but this type of file-sharing can come with increased risks.

Although torrents are restricted by countries all over the world, internet censorship looks different in every country. In the U.S., the most recent censorship ruling was based on social media companies restricting the free speech of users.

In 2020, former President Donald J. Trump signed an executive order preventing internet censorship on social media platforms. The president was concerned that social media sites were censoring users by limiting their freedom of speech, one of the five freedoms guaranteed in the U.S. First Amendment.

Part of the executive order said, “Online platforms are engaging in selective censorship that is harming our national discourse. Tens of thousands of Americans have reported, among other troubling behaviors, online platforms ‘flagging’ content as inappropriate, even though it does not violate any stated terms of service; making unannounced and unexplained changes to company policies that have the effect of disfavoring certain viewpoints; and deleting content and entire accounts with no warning, no rationale, and no recourse.”

The executive order was not enforced because Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protects social media sites. Section 230 prevents social media companies from liability based on user content. It also allows companies to limit or censor users for posting content deemed inappropriate.

Did you know?

The U.S. Supreme court declared the internet a place for free expression that's protected under the First Amendment in Reno v. ACLU. The Court ruled that the federal Communications Decency Act, which aimed to censor “indecent” or “offensive” content that could be seen by a minor, was unconstitutional.

In China and North Korea, citizens aren’t able to use certain messaging apps. (Though the Chinese government allows its citizens to use one approved messaging app that does not have end-to-end encryption and may not be secure.)

China is well-known for what’s called called “the great firewall of China,” which allows the Chinese government to monitor and censor online content. In 2010, Google shut down its popular search engine in China after it decided it was no longer comfortable censoring its search results for the country’s internet users.

In some instances, internet censorship may happen in response to a current event. Countries such as Iran will shut down social media and news sites to curb anti-government protests or sentiments.

3 ways to avoid internet censorship

If you find yourself in a country with strict internet censorship, there are a few ways to get around the regulations. Some of the tools you can use include a virtual private network, proxy servers, or a secure web browser.

1. Virtual private networks (VPNs)

A VPN may help you circumvent internet censorship by providing an IP address that is outside of the country with restrictions. You may be in a foreign country where access to social media or other internet content may be limited. A VPN allows you to show up as an IP address in the U.S. to give you access when you’re in a different country.

Some VPNs, like NordVPN, also include a Smart DNS option that offers an alternative way to get around geographic restrictions.

There are many VPNs available for both computers and mobile devices. They are also easy to set up and use. You can download an app and use a VPN at home for increased network security. In some cases, the country may have also blocked VPN usage, so VPNs might be illegal to use there.

2. Proxy servers

A proxy server is another way to avoid internet censorship. A proxy allows you to circumvent a blocked site by hiding your IP address. This disguises your location and allows you to access sites that are on a blacklist. A proxy server is less secure than a VPN due to the lack of encryption. They may also be slower than a VPN.

3. Secure web browsers

A secure web browser protects your privacy and browser history. Not only will it hide your IP address, but it also deletes cookies after you close the browser window. The secure web browser will also encrypt your data and protect your browser history.

Is incognito mode or private browsing secure?

Incognito mode isn’t as secure as a VPN or some web browsers, but it does offer extra privacy and may get around some internet restrictions. If you use incognito mode (on Google Chrome) or private browsing (on Safari and Firefox), your browser history and any cookies won’t be saved when you end your session.

Internet censorship FAQs


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Does the U.S. have internet censorship?

The U.S. does have some internet censorship, but for the most part, it’s considered to have free access to the internet. In many cases, internet censorship is used for national security in the U.S. or by private corporations.


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Does the U.K. have internet censorship?

Yes, the U.K. does have internet censorship, but the country is still in the top 10 countries with the highest internet freedom, according to Freedom House.


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How does internet censorship affect freedom of expression?

Internet censorship can limit individuals' freedom of expression by restricting access to sites where they can speak freely. 

Some internet censorship may also include the government monitoring citizen’s internet activity and speech. This monitoring could lead to people feeling uncomfortable with expressing themselves.


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Which country has the most internet freedom?

In 2021, the Freedom House named Iceland the country with the most internet freedom. China was the least internet-free country in the annual report.

Bottom line

Internet censorship is prevalent all over the globe. Countries may restrict access for their citizens, parents may limit access to inappropriate content, and businesses may prohibit employees from visiting social media and other sites at work. Internet censorship serves a purpose in some cases — preventing fake news, minimizing cybersecurity threats, and more.

There are tools to avoid internet censorship, such as VPNs, safe web browsers, and proxy servers. However, each of these also brings liability.

Circumventing a restriction meant to protect users from cybersecurity threats may result in your network or device being exposed to those threats. Some countries also prosecute citizens who ignore internet censorship and using these tools may or may not protect you from government enforcement.

Find out why NordVPN is one of our top recommended ways to prevent internet censorship in our in-depth NordVPN review.

When encountering internet censorship, it is important to understand why it is in place and if it is protecting you from threats or harmful content. If you want to go around the censorship, make sure to use a robust VPN or another service to gain access.

Author Details
Andrew Adams
Andrew Strom Adams helps businesses with a variety of marketing and communication efforts including content strategy and writing, branding, marketing, and more. He holds an MBA from Westminster College in Salt Lake City and a bachelor's degree in Journalism from Oklahoma Baptist University.