Since 2000 use of the Internet has gone from 400 million users to over four billion. Governments around the world have taken notice and, in the last decade, many have made vigorous efforts to control what they consider a “disruptive”, to their control over the population, technology. Some rulers, usually of dictatorships, have been surprisingly successful in censoring and controlling Internet use by their subjects. Despite that, the balance in central control of information has been fundamentally changed in favor of the ruled rather than the rulers. When it comes to the Internet you can delay or distort the signal but you can’t stop it and what it does.
There are a few nations that have been very successful at controlling the Internet and a growing number that are trying to copy that success. The two most successful Internet censors are North Korea and China. North Korea had an advantage in that it was such a poor communist dictatorship that few of its subjects had access to radio or TV that was not strictly controlled by the government. Most North Koreans were too poor to own a computer, something that did not change until cheap Chinese made smartphones became available over the last decade. From the beginning access to the global Internet was strictly controlled and monitored in North Korea. In place of the global Internet, North Korea built its own Internet what was only available in North Korea. Some North Koreans could access the global Internet but was dangerous and expensive. First, you had to buy a Chinese cell phone and then use it near the border, or wi-fi “leaking” from embassies in the capital and connect to the global Internet. This was very illegal and those caught were severely punished. For the North Korean government, the damage was done as they no longer strictly controlled information as they had in pre-Internet days. Bad and outside news was slowed down inside North Korea but still got to most of the population eventually. Even with that, the North Korean rulers control Internet access more effectively than any other nation.
China is the second most successful Internet censor. This is largely because, unlike North Korea, China allowed a market economy to develop in the 1980s and over the next three decades became the second largest economy on the planet while still ruled by a communist dictatorship. This meant China always had a much larger percentage of its population using cell phones and the Internet, and they were unhappy if that access was disrupted.
In third place is Russia which as the Soviet Union from 1920s to 1990s developed the police state methods that China, North Korea and many other dictatorships adopted. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 because state control of the economy does not work. The Soviet Union went bankrupt while half its population literally quit the empire and became independent states. After about a decade as a democracy, Russian rulers figured out how to restore dictatorial rule and developed ways to use this new Internet technology to help them.
The Russians were less successful than the Chinese in developing a market economy, partly because Russians lived under a state-controlled economy far longer than the Chinese, who only had full control of the economy from the 1950s and realized sooner than the Russians that it does not work. Russia is trying to emulate North Korea and make their Internet separate from the rest of the world. Russia does not plan to use its Russia only Internet full time but has been working towards creating a national Internet that can be sealed off from the rest of the world on short notice and function as a national Internet for as long as necessary. Some tests of this tech have already been conducted and this capability is expected to be fully functional by 2021.
Russia has been exporting its Internet control tech to other nations, like Turkmenistan and Belarus, which were formerly parts of the Soviet Union and, like Russia, have reverted to dictatorship. Cuba, also a communist police state, has also adopted Russian Internet control methods as has Iran, a Moslem religious dictatorship. China has also exported its Internet and social control tech to nations like Turkey, Pakistan, Oman the UAE and Eritrea. These nations want to impose a lot of control on their Internet users and what the Chinese are offering seems to work. Moslem majority nations, even technically democratic ones like Pakistan, have eagerly sought out and adopted Internet control and censorship technology.
Governments in general, even true democracies, have sought to better control Internet use by their own citizens. This is usually justified by the need to safeguard public morality (from porn, especially child pornography) and enforce existing laws, mainly copyrights. Many Internet users see all this as more governments seeking to retain power over information,especially about government misbehavior.
Most of the global population now has access to the Internet, often via smartphones that are actually very small computers possessing more computing power and data storage than much larger computers businesses were using in the 1980s. This rapid increase of computing power and availability caused authoritarian governments to lose control of the mass media (print and later broadcast) which, for over a century had enabled dictators to control what their people knew of the world and in their own countries. Even in democracies many elected leaders, and even more unelected bureaucrats, resented and feared the information freedom enjoyed by a population where the majority of people were enthusiastic users of the Internet and hostile to government efforts to control or censor it.
In un-democratic nations, the Internet was a very real threat to dictatorial leaders. As Internet use grew so did efforts to control it. Early on Internet users believed that governments were at a permanent disadvantage when it came to information control. Not just because the Internet now existed and was more widely available than telephones ever were, but because the Internet was originally designed to survive massive disruption, like a nuclear war, and keep functioning. American military researchers were given the task of creating that type of system in the 1960s and, within two decades, the fundamental Internet tech was operational but only available to military and academic researchers. The early Internet was never a secret as it ultimately had to be widely available to work. That came when it slowly became commercialized in the 1990s. Then the web browser was invented in 1993 followed by the World Wide Web, and Internet use skyrocketed. At the same time cell phones were becoming smaller, cheaper and more widely available. By 2000 the Internet as we know it was rapidly developing and spreading.
China was particularly determined to tame the Internet, which continues to enable too many Chinese to speak freely with each other and billions of other Internet users outside China. One of the more common tools for evading censors has been the VPN (Virtual Private Networks). Since 2014 China has been cracking down on VPN use with more and more effective methods. By late 2017 it became clear that the latest anti-VPN measures had backfired. A growing number of foreign firms, whose VPN use is supposed to be unrestricted, were finding their VPNs rendered useless by Chinese censors. Worse, the Chinese government was slow to fix these problems and it was no secret that many Chinese leaders would like to drive most foreign companies out of China without admitting that sort of thing is Chinese policy.
The VPN situation got much worse in 2015 when China made a major effort to block Chinese from free access to the international Internet. This involved new censorship software to detect and block the use of VPNs that have been used to access forbidden web sites outside China. In 2015 it was estimated that as many as ten percent of Chinese Internet users got past the “Great Firewall Of China” using VPNs and other technical tools. The government also rolled out powerful new data mining and screening software checks for anti-government posts in real-time. The problem with blocking all this is that many of these wall piercers are just curious or, more importantly, business users who need this international access to remain competitive. While the government will grant international access for business and academic users these, permits are difficult to get and still involve some censorship. As expected the Great Firewall crossers are finding other ways to access the outside world and the struggle continues.
Despite all this censorship, Chinese continue to discuss forbidden subjects, mainly about corruption at the top and Chinese who openly protest the corruption and bad government. Chinese censors are not really going after individual offenders as much as they are seeking to prevent mass unrest from being ignited. Thus sometimes even the arrest and punishment of Internet offenders is not publicized, lest this gets a mass protest movement going. China has a growing problem with large groups of people hitting the streets to protest in the flesh. With the large amount of government corruption and inefficiency, there's a lot to protest. The Internet is seen as essential economically, but also the chief means of local protests turning into major ones. That is not to be allowed, at all costs. That approach has not worked so far but has made Internet use more difficult and limited in many parts of the world. Worst of all Internet users still find a way to complain about each other about Internet censorship.
The Internet has changed the relationship between rulers and ruled worldwide and returning to the bad old days is no longer an option.