Internet censorship is a topic that is becoming relevant to more people than it has in the past. The internet makes information accessible to anyone with a connection to it—but what happens if someone else gets to control what you can and can’t see on the internet?
Sometimes, the intent behind censorship is benign, such as parents wanting to protect their children from inappropriate content. But other times, it can be an authoritarian attempt to control what a nation is allowed and not allowed to know.
In basic terms, internet censorship is about restricting what information is available to people online. In the internet’s early days, the user community monitored what happened instead of governments, organizations, and companies. However, the latter entity–governments–have decided that community management is not sufficient, which unfortunately has a number of frightening consequences. So how can the public keep internet-based information uncensored?
A variety of tools exist to circumvent censorship, but they each have their shortcomings. One of the most promising potential solutions is blockchain technology. A blockchain is a decentralized network that makes information more transparent than it was capable of being in the past—and while many people might think of Bitcoin when they hear the word blockchain, a more suitable application that you are likely to use in your day to day life looks more like Substratum.
How does Internet censorship work?
According to How Stuff Works, many hardware and software applications designed to censor the internet rely on “web filters.” These filters then use two primary techniques to prevent people from accessing content: keyword blocking and blacklists. The former scans and analyzes a webpage when an internet user attempts to visit it and prohibits access if it dubs the page inappropriate due to the keywords within. The latter bans websites based on what the web-filters creators have selected and placed on a blacklist–for example, the website Google in China.
Firewalls are also used to create a barrier between computer networks and the internet. However, firewalls require more administrative involvement—such as a parent or employer physically inputting the parameters of what employees/children are permitted to do online.
Where is internet censorship prominent?
International NGO Reporters Without Borders first published a list of “Enemies of the Internet” in 2006. It added the United States to the list in 2014. The countries with the harshest censorship policies include Belarus, China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam.
Le-VPN.com also adds countries like Ethiopia and Eritrea to its list of nations that impose internet censorship for multiple reasons, such as maintaining national security, maintaining political stability, and imposing traditional social values. Some countries restrict access, but others–namely, Myanmar–allegedly go so far as to surveil internet cafes, and Cuba has outright banned private internet usage.
What tools are currently used to circumvent censorship?
There are several methods used to have content delivered censorship-free. For instance, VPNs–which stands for “virtual private network(s)–are a popular tool to bypass censorship. VPNs masks an individuals internet request through their private network, making it somewhat difficult for a third-party to see what the original request senders IP address is. For example, not all of the content on Netflix is available in every country, so some individuals in foreign countries use VPNs to mask their foreign IP address to access content available on Netflix in other countries which is not available in their own.
Web-based proxies are websites that enable users to access blocked sites. Encrypted proxies add an additional layer of security by encrypting the connection so that others cannot see what sites users are visiting. Tor is an example of open-source software that grants users online anonymity—it routes users’ browsing traffic in such a way that it bypasses censorship.
Anti-censorship advocates like our founder Justin Tabb, however, know that all of these methods have their caveats. While VPNs protect their users from local spying, the VPN providers can still record what websites users visit or can permit third-parties to peek at users browsing habits. Web-based proxies provide extraordinarily little security and are an unwise choice for individuals with a high threat model because they allow all of a users activity to be easily monitored. In addition, providers of encrypted proxy tools might also retain user information (even email addresses). Tor—if configured correctly—does not carry these risks, however, it can be slow and frustrating to use.
Is there a better option?
These problems are what we are hoping to solve with Substratum. Substratum is an open-source network that “allows anyone to allocate spare computing resources to make the internet a free and fair place for the entire world.” When users download the SubstratumNode, they can circumvent internet censorship and earn SUB tokens in exchange for routing the network’s requests. We have plans to integrate the SubstratumNode with a cryptocurrency exchange in the future–the Amplify Exchange–to ensure that oppressive organizations cannot censor the blockchain network.
Such tools are necessary in today’s world because tools like proxies and VPNs are relatively short-term solutions for what is looking to be a long-term problem. However, our open-source network will protect users, give them anonymity, and prevent third-parties from commandeering it without sacrificing speed and reliability.
The most optimal world is not censored.
At Substratum, we believe in the importance of an uncensored internet. Beyond parents trying to prevent their children from seeing dangerous and inappropriate websites, nobody should have the ability to limit your access to internet-based resources. Therefore, people need up-to-date tools that enable them to use the internet freely and securely, no matter where they are located in the world—and Substratum is poised to do that.