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Using Tor and VPN to get around Internet Censorship

Wall of fire

[This post is by Konrad Lawson, a writer so new his account privileges aren't fully hooked up yet! See Konrad's previous ProfHacker posts, or follow him on Twitter.]

Internet censorship can stand in the way of, not only political activism, but in many countries the accomplishment of many basic daily tasks in our personal and professional lives. Though we still have far to go in developing easy and effective ways of getting around a complete shutdown of the Internet such as the ones we saw most recently in Egypt and Libya, there is a growingly sophisticated toolbox for getting around the restrictions put in place by authoritarian governments of countries such as China as well as some democracies such as South Korea, to use two examples from my own experience.

China’s famous “Great Firewall” infamously blocks a whole range of websites, sometimes for only short periods of time and sometimes only certain pages. The result of visiting a banned location varies greatly depending on what internet provider you are using there, from a 404 “not found” message, an unexplained connection failure, a stern government warning about accessing a “dangerous” part of the internet, or a simple announcement that your location had been logged by the authorities. I found the most effective punishment of all was used by my local Internet provider in Shandong which, for example, whenever I accidentally opened any website from Taiwan would, without any warning, completely disable my Internet connection for exactly three minutes. I was left to quietly reflect upon my mistake. However, even living in tech savvy Seoul I was often surprised at the fact that North Korean websites and sometimes those merely hosting video clips from North Korea were blocked.

Just as learning how to protect our own data from prying eyes by methods such as email encryption will become a basic component of full Net literacy, so too I believe it is increasingly important for us to learn some of the ways to circumvent Internet censorship in a world where our access to information is central to everything we do. Here are two ways I found effective for getting around the many friends of Jingjing and Chacha around the world:

Tor

When I first started using the Internet there in 1999, the most common method among my friends in China for getting unfettered access to the web was by the use of proxy servers, though university students also often made extensive use of huge university BBS (bulletin board systems) networks that for some time escaped close scrutiny from the government. The biggest problem with proxy servers, which redirected traffic from blocked sources through a third-party server was that once these servers had themselves been blocked, it was necessary to find another in a constant game of cat and mouse. I have memories of going through long lists of IP addresses given to me in search for a server that was still accessible.

Enter Tor. Tor is a network designed to protect privacy and security by making use of encrypted traffic tunneled through a collection of relays. In practical terms, Tor makes it possible for someone subject to Internet censorship to conceal the ultimate destination of any request for data and any data sent. It is far superior to the earlier method of swapping around lists of proxy servers since the Tor software handles for you the task of connecting to a growing and rapidly changing list of relays that carry traffic in not one but several jumps to its ultimate destination.

To use Tor as a client, download and install the software as well as a browser plug-in such as the Torbutton for Firefox and activate it when you wish to connect through the Tor network. Depending on the number of relays available and your connection, traffic can be significantly slower than what you’re used to so turn it off when you don’t need it.

If you are fortunate to be in a country without significant Internet censorship, consider installing Tor and then adding your own computer as a relay for traffic through its network. The more people run relays, the stronger the network becomes.

VPN

Back in November Brian gave us a wonderful introduction to the use of Virtual Private Servers (VPN). In that posting we learned how it can be used to protect yourself and your data from snooping. For exactly the same reasons, VPN is also a way of getting around internet censorship in many cases. Because universities and large corporations often provide access to VPN servers for their employees and students, if a government decides to block all access to a given VPN they risk incurring the anger of those institutions who may be involved in conducting profitable business or valuable research exchanges with the country. Check with your university and see if they provide VPN access. If they do, connecting to it will route all of your traffic through the University. This is, by the way, also a convenient way for fooling a website into thinking you are connecting from the United States when in fact you are abroad, thus delivering you content that may be restricted to domestic consumption for advertising or licensing reasons.

These are the two methods that I found most useful but I would love to hear what experiences others have had with circumvention techniques. What has worked best for you?

Photo by Flickr user frostnova / Creative Commons licensed

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