It comes as no surprise that repressive countries like Russia, China, and Turkey are doing everything in their control to restrict online connectivity to a handful of government-sanctioned websites. Experts routinely cite many reasons for censorship, including a fear that government authority will be challenged by outside forces, fear that people will start thinking differently, or fear that external influences will influence domestic affairs. We will now examine Internet censorship in Russia, China, and Turkey.

Russia's Great Firewall

Russia is ruled by a ‘democratically-elected’ autocrat – Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Putin wields totalitarian control over Russia and is not scared to flex his muscles. Russia's Great Firewall is yet another example of government overreach. Putin is expected to put pen to paper and officially endorse the ‘Sovereign Internet Bill’. This is perceived as the death knell for freedom of speech, activists say.

Russia remains the arch nemesis of the United States, despite the two countries never having fired a shot at one another directly. The decades-old proxy war has quite literally become a de facto ‘proxy war of Internet servers’ with rampant hacking, miscommunication, and the theft of personal and sensitive information online.

Escalating tensions between Russia and the US have served only to intensify Russian hacking activity and their pursuit of greater control over the Internet. Vladimir Putin has repeatedly threatened to remove Russia from the global Internet.

It is deeply troubling what Putin is telling his countrymen,

‘[Western intelligence agencies] are sitting online. [The internet] is their creation. And they hear, see and read everything that you are saying and they’re collecting security information.’

He is using this type of propaganda to gain greater control over the Internet and the Sovereign Internet Bill is the culmination of his efforts. According to this bill, telecommunications operators are now tasked with monitoring, filtering, and creating a framework for all Internet traffic. This will allow Russia to operate on its own exclusive Internet, off the global grid.

Critics of Russian censorship argue that government is now emboldened to investigate and spy on its own citizens. Internet freedom advocates across Russia agree that Internet regulation, data filtering, and content blocking are simply tools used by the government to entrench their position of power and to limit the free flow of information.

50% + of all online traffic in Russia travels through MSK-IX, a 19-storey building which is responsible for Russian Internet communications. The country is also planning on constructing a proxy-style DNS system which will convert URLs into IP addresses. This allows the Russian government to limit all traffic flows to these websites. Theoretically, all Russian websites would work and the government is expecting users not to waste their time on sites that it has made redundant.

What is the solution?

The situation is a little tricky because Russia has issued a stern warning to providers of virtual private network (VPN) services that they must adhere to domestic censorship laws or face bans. The Sovereign Internet bill states that the country's national block-list must be adhered to by VPN providers. On March 28, 2019, a letter was sent to 10 leading VPN providers, requesting them to comply with laws or face censorship themselves. Fortunately, several of the VPN services decided not to comply with the Roskomnadzor’s letter.

Top VPN providers in this regard include OpenVPN and VyprVPN. Other VPN providers, including IPVanish, NordVPN, and ExpressVPN announced that they will be shuttering their Russian servers. This is a situation that requires ongoing monitoring. Restrictive Internet practices in Russia and the threat to create a Sovereign Internet is a real concern. The only way for Russians to maintain online privacy, and anonymity from prying eyes is a reputable VPN service.

The Great Firewall China – Suppression Par Excellence

‘The Great Firewall of China’ euphemistically describes a real phenomenon where government censorship severely curtails Internet access. China is one of the most technologically sophisticated countries in the world, and it uses a blend of technological tools and human censors to block social media and critical websites.

By 2015, China became one of the world’s top three countries jailing journalists. On April 22, 2014, a government-issued document was released – Document 9 – with explicit directives to reject the concept of universal values, suppress the West's view of media, and combat seven political perils. Since then, China has wasted no time making good on its promises to actively police the Internet and an estimated 700 million Internet users.

China is actively engaged in attacking the freedom of speech online and has been doing so for at least 20 years. It is worrisome that Beijing's censorship controls have increased in recent years, with little or no access to Facebook and Google permitted. State-sponsored cybercriminals have successfully shut down multiple sites around the world, stolen credentials from individuals and companies, and attempted to reconstruct Internet frameworks based on repressive models.

Today, China boasts a highly sophisticated traffic-filtering system which enforces strict surveillance and censorship. People are blocked from connecting to any website that the Communist Party disagrees with. China's great firewall makes it virtually impossible for people to access traffic, websites, and various online communication channels. The Chinese government is bent on dictating the narrative, controlling social activity, and maintaining a vice-like grip on power.

There are hopes that the Chinese government will be unable to control the virtually limitless supply of information on the web. It was hoped that the global popularity of social media networks like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and others would result in increased liberalization of Chinese online communications, but that has not happened. The ongoing trade war between China and the US has exacerbated concerns and led to a more hawkish and totalitarian approach to online freedoms for China. Journalistic freedom is under attack in China.

  • In 2014, a poetry and arts editor named Xu Xiao was detained by the authorities for supposedly endangering national security online.
  • Gao Yu, was detained for ‘illegally’ providing state secrets abroad after Document 9 was released. She rebutted her closed-trial confession later on state TV (CCTV) claiming that she was being harassed and feared for her son’s life
  • There are dozens of incidents of jailed journalists, reporters, and writers in China.

What is the solution?

The only solution to effectively avoid the strict censorship laws currently in place in China is to hide your IP address from prying eyes. Several powerful tools are available to people, including Tor (The Onion Router) and VPNs (Virtual Private Networks). The top 5 VPNs for China include ExpressVPN, NordVPN, VyperVPN, PureVPN, and Buffered VPN. These VPNs work by hiding your IP address, thereby obfuscating your true identity from the government.

The VPNs allow you to access thousands of shared IP addresses across multiple servers all over the world. Any time there is a block on content, these VPNs assess connectivity issues and then carry out the requisite actions to bypass these blocks. By having obfuscated servers in surrounding countries and territories (Hong Kong, Thailand, Taiwan, Japan, India, et cetera), thereby ensuring greater stability and better speed when logging in from China.

Turkey opts for Tight Censorship of the Internet

In March 2019, the Turkish Parliament passed a law to allow the government to act against digital TV services, and streaming TV services. The media watchdog authority known as FRTUK has been empowered with the ability to censor content, impose punitive measures against streaming TV services and digital TV services and even to revoke licenses. RTUK can petition courts to block user access to websites which do not comply with the requirements of this watchdog authority.

Such is the intrusive nature of government overreach that many TV shows have been slapped with fines for distributing immoral content such as cigarettes and alcohol. Wikipedia has been blocked since 2018 since it failed to remove content related to Turkish support for Syrian jihadists. There are also increased incidents of social media sites being blocked, notably YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook.

What is the solution?

Once again, VPNs and Tor are viable solutions for accessing blocked content and streaming Netflix, BBC iPlayer, and Hulu. VPNs like VPN Master, IPVanish, TunnelBear VPN and Hotspot Shield are highly effective at accessing blocked content from Turkey.

Have you had any experience skirting firewall protections in Russia, China, and Turkey? What VPN services do you recommend?