The exposure of the NSA’s PRISM program has highlighted the implications of Internet censorship and mass surveillance and it’s impact on Internet freedom and net neutrality. Internet censorship is not a new concept, as a select few countries have been publicly advocating the use of Internet censorship to prevent their residents from enjoying the ultimate tool for freedom of speech against oppressive regimes.
Internet censorship goes far beyond the simple concept of blocking Facebook or YouTube at your school or office. Companies may be justified in modifying their networks to boost employee productivity, but monitoring and blocking Internet traffic just because it is in direct conflict with their ideals and policies is an entirely different matter.
Freedom of speech is one of the most important aspects of a democratic society, however, Internet censorship is something that we should genuinely be worried about.
There are multiple ways in which governments, Internet Service Providers (ISPs), and surveillance agencies monitor Internet traffic. At VPN Creative we aim to help our audience circumvent Internet censorship measures and explain how to bypass censorship and other restrictions for complete online anonymity. In this article, you will find:
- The Methods Used to Impose Internet Censorship
- How To Bypass Internet Censorship
Global Trends In Internet Censorship
It is estimated that more than a billion people are affected by Internet censorship, and according to a report by the Guardian, a large part of Internet censorship problems are related to Middle Eastern and Asian countries.
Most of the developing countries of the world are major culprits in this regard, who resort to various forms of Internet censorship strategies to dictate their authority over their citizens. China, which amounts to one of the most significant percentages of Internet users due to their population, is known to adopt a range of Internet censorship tools, but China is not the only country in the list. Here are some of the most notorious violators that adopt the most stringent Internet censorship rules:
North Korea is one of the major violators of internet privacy that clearly dictate the amount of freedom their citizens can enjoy. North Korea is known to frequently update its internet censorship tools to suit their leaders’ requirements and is always proactive in curbing any criticisms against the ruling Government. According to a recent news article from BBC, it was revealed that personal computers sold in North Korea had the Red Star OS, which was designed by North Korean programmers to replicate the Mac OSX, but contained spying tools that tracked all files stored and transferred from the computer through online as well as offline sources. The program works by watermarking all files on the computer and associating each watermark to a single user. This helps the Government to track all file transfers and take necessary action against users who violate state policies. Such practices underscore the extent of internet censorship that seriously violates personal freedom and basic human rights.
China is the most populous country in the world, which makes it one of the largest contributors towards internet traffic. Sadly, people of China are not provided the freedom to browse the internet the way it was supposed to be. China employs some of the most advanced internet censorship filters that limit the amount of content that can be accessed. The Great Firewall of China is an advanced internet censorship tool employed by the Chinese Government that constantly updates its tools and mechanisms to prevent residents of the country from accessing the entire database of online content or posting questionable information that contradicts Chinese policies. China consistently scores low points in internet freedom and censorship surveys, and according to a recent survey report, China ranks at the very bottom of the countries list in the internet freedom and openness survey among the 65 countries surveyed.
Iran has some ridiculous laws in place that deter the amount of freedom that can be enjoyed by internet users. For instance, bloggers in Iran had to be registered with Ministry of Art & Culture to start their own blog and if any blogger was found to be in violation of their state rules by posting content against the country’s ideals or state policies, the violators would be prosecuted. Iran is particularly guilty of censoring much of the content that they believe is in violation of their state guidelines and will readily block a website or a group of websites for alleged conflicts of interest. Iran is also quick to arrest perpetrators on inconsequential grounds and has recently made news by arresting people for simply being too happy.
Saudi Arabia is a country that is highly sensitive to their religion and does not tolerate any kind of discussions related to their religion or ideals. Other sensitive contents such as pornography, gambling, and other similar websites are blocked in Saudi Arabia, and they constantly update their censorship lists to include new websites on a periodic basis. Saudi Arabia is the leader in internet censorship among the Middle Eastern countries and is usually the first country to block any content that violates their Islamic laws, beliefs, and ideals.
Although Cuba is a part of the west, years of the oppressive regime has forced their citizens to forego their dreams of using a free internet. The Internet is largely restricted to pro-government citizens and is only available at certain ‘access points’ provided by the government or pro-government agencies. Cuba adopts several internet censorship tools to ensure that their users don’t post or share content that are against their ruling policies.
However, internet censorship is not solely adopted for the purpose of suppressing citizens from acting out against oppressive regimes. In some regions, internet censorship is used to block specific types of content such as pornography, file-sharing or torrent transfers, social networks, content related to hate, violence, and racism, and more. Some countries also block content that provides information about arms and ammunitions, while some countries simply restrict access to social networking and dating sites.
We may also experience some form of internet censorship in our daily routines. For instance, companies are known to install filters in their networks to prevent employees from accessing specific websites such as social networks and entertainment sites. Public Wi-Fi hotspots are known to deter users from using too much bandwidth by blocking streaming websites and peer-to-peer traffic such as torrents. Therefore, if you think about it, internet censorship is not just restricted to oppressive regimes, it is all around us.
The Methods Used to Impose Internet Censorship
IP blocking is one of the primary forms of Internet censorship. It involves blocking the IP address of a website that is deemed to host questionable content. Many ISPs, as well as government agencies, resort to blocking IP addresses hosting websites with content against their policies, even if the IP address is shared by multiple websites. Therefore, all websites that share a hosted IP address face the problem of being banned and losing out on a significant audience, immaterial of whether they host good content or not.
The Solution: Being one of the most primitive forms of Internet censorship, it is easy to get around IP blocking by using a proxy address or a VPN to hide your traffic from the ISP or government filter. When you use a VPN or a proxy service, you are essentially connecting to the Internet via a proxy IP address. This will ensure that your ISP only sees your proxy IP address, thereby keeping your web browsing behavior anonymous.
DNS Filtering and Redirection
DNS filtering and redirection is more complex and advanced than simple IP blocking. In this type of censorship, the filters are designed so as to prevent the DNS (Domain Name Server) from resolving the correct domain name.
In some cases, these filters will also return incorrect IP addresses, which will prevent the website from displaying properly. Several countries such as China, Iran, Denmark, and Norway use DNS filtering and reduction as part of their internet censorship strategies to block websites.
The Solution: DNS filtering can only be bypassed by changing your ISP’s DNS to an OpenDNS or a third-party DNS service such as Google Public DNS. Several VPN companies also offer a SmartDNS option that allows you to change your ISP’s DNS by configuring the network settings in your devices’ operating system. Changing a DNS requires a bit of technical knowledge, but there are detailed guides available from public DNS platforms and third-party VPN service providers. You can also bypass the filters by typing in the IP address of the website, but this will only work provided the website is hosted on a dedicated IP address and the IP address is not blocked by the filters.
URL filtering is a common censorship tool adopted by ISPs, government agencies, schools, public organizations, and private companies that scan the keywords in the URL to block them from their users. This is a double-edged sword, as some websites might offer genuine information that is completely unrelated to the blocked keyword, but are nevertheless blocked due to the presence of a questionable keyword in their website.
The Solution: URL filtering can be circumvented by using an encrypted connection. This can be achieved by using a VPN or Tor, as the primary aim of using an encrypted connection is to hide your web browsing activity from censorship filters. You can also access blocked content by typing in escape characters into the URL bar, but this requires a detailed technical knowledge of HTML.
Packet filtering is the process of filtering content based on data packets that are sent or received through a network access point. In this technique, the firewall is designed to analyze data packets for keywords, IP addresses, ports, content, and other rules as determined by the firewall guidelines. Packet filtering allows for blocking entire data packets, or to let through specific data packets that satisfy the firewall conditions, thereby allowing more freedom to ISPs and data censorship agencies for controlling the flow of information.
The Solution: The solution to counteract censorship through packet filtering is to anonymize your data packets by encrypting it using a VPN or Tor. ISP packet filters are unable to read encrypted content, which helps you to access the web without any form of Internet censorship and complete online anonymity.
Man-In-The-Middle (MITM) Attacks
The MITM attack is one of the most preferred censorship techniques for countries that are more proactive in their control over the transfer of information over the Internet.
Countries such as China, Iran, North Korea, and Cuba have successfully adopted Man-In-The-Middle attacks for a wide range of victims in the past. MITM attacks are more focused on eavesdropping and surveillance, rather than outright denial of access. It is employed by establishing an independent connection with the user and fooling them into thinking that they are communicating with the intended recipients, when they are in fact, communicating with the eavesdropper. MITM attacks are also used extensively by hackers for stealing sensitive and confidential data such as passwords, credit card information, banking details, and more.
The Solution: Encryption is the key to preventing MITM attacks. A surveillance agency can only intercept data if it is transmitted through an open connection. A VPN service provider that uses SSL, or browser-related tools such as HTTPS Everywhere can help you to establish a secure connection by encrypting the flow of data, making it difficult for the spying agencies to decode the data without the encryption key. A website that transmits their data HTTPS protocol is also reliable, as it will be virtually impossible for censorship tools or hackers to read the content that is being transmitted through a secure browser.
TCP Connection Resets/Forged TCP Resets
TCP Connection Reset is a technology that was initially designed by hackers to initiate a Denial Of Service situation but was quickly adopted by several countries as a reliable means of internet censorship for the masses. In such a technique, when the existing filters block a TCP connection, all subsequent connections and requests are automatically blocked for all users. Such a Forged TCP reset will also block websites and users that route their traffic through the blocked IP address. TCP connection resets were successfully implemented by Comcast during the famous scandal of 2007, where Comcast used this technique to block peer-to-peer traffic. However, Comcast was ordered by the US FCC on August 2008 to cease using TCP connection resets on any of its users.
The Solution: TCP connection resets can be circumvented by tweaking your firewall to ignore the TCP connection resets. You can easily tweak your device’s firewall settings or change your antivirus’ firewall configuration to ignore the reset packet. Chinese internet users use this technique to bypass forged TCP resets that are enforced by the Great Firewall Of China.
Deep Packet Inspection (DPI)
Deep Packet Inspection goes a step beyond simple Packet Filtering. DPI uses tools that have the capability of inspecting the inner data of a packet, which essentially lets anybody read private emails, browsing history, and even eavesdrop on communications using VoIP. DPI was used extensively by NSA in their PRISM program, and while DPI was initially designed to fight against spam and viruses, several countries such as China and Iran quickly adopted the technology to access private information in the form of emails and other communications over the internet. DPI can be used to target a single email address or a group of email addresses, and can be tracked for a particular set of keywords or content. DPI was also used for a lot of other surveillance projects that intruded into the privacy of law-abiding citizens.
The Solution: Deep Packet Inspection can also be avoided by using a secure internet connection in the form of a VPN or Tor. VPN or Tor helps in encrypting your data and also lets you connect to a website through a remote server situated in a different part of the world. This allows you to conceal your private information from prying eyes.
How To Bypass Internet Censorship
Using Virtual Private Network (VPN)
A VPN is considered to be the most reliable tool for bypassing internet censorship and to enjoy complete online anonymity. A VPN is used to encrypt your internet traffic through secure channels, and will offer you the option of connecting to the internet from a server that can be situated anywhere in the world. This allows you to mask your original location, and the encryption will allow you to keep your browsing data hidden from censorship filters or surveillance agencies. Browse through our list of top VPN service providers to find your preferred VPN company that offers excellent online privacy according to your web browsing needs.
Using Proxy Server
There are several free as well as paid proxy servers that allow you to change your IP address and mask your original location. While this is considered to be the most basic tool for bypassing internet censorship, using a proxy server does not guarantee complete online anonymity. Proxy servers lack any form of encryption and your ISP can see your web browsing data unless you use a free proxy server along with encryption tools. This will drastically affect the speed of browsing and can also lead to severe downtimes. VPN services are more advantageous and reliable than free proxy servers, but you can use proxy servers if you are just looking to bypass internet censorship that does not involve heavy internet usage.
Using SSH Tunnel Or HTTPS Encryption
There are free browser add-ons such as HTTPs Everywhere that allows you to browse the web through an encrypted connection using just your browser. You can also use an SSH tunnel by tunneling your traffic through a secure server. However, SSH tunneling is mostly available as a paid option, unless you have access to a free remote SSH server. Encryption tools such as HTTPs Everywhere is also largely limited in their reach and utility, as such tools won’t work well with certain websites. Therefore, a VPN will make more sense to bypass internet censorship.
Using DNS Server
Using a DNS server or a smartDNS option is useful for countries that adopt DNS filtering and redirection as the primary censorship tool. SmartDNS also allows for better streaming without buffering issues, as it does not involve any kind of encryption or rerouting traffic through multiple servers. Therefore, a DNS server is the most preferred option for unblocking media websites such as Netflix, BBC iPlayer, YouTube, and other similar online on-demand video channels. Several VPN companies offer a wide variety of DNS options that are relatively inexpensive and easily accessible.
Tor is a free alternative to VPN and allows you to browse the web anonymously. Tor was also reported by NSA to be one of the most difficult tools to break in terms of encryption, and according to leaked documents from the NSA to the Guardian, NSA has reported Tor to be the “the king of high-secure, low-latency internet anonymity.’ Tor also continuously beats several censorship tools from countries such as China and Iran and has been winning the battle hands down. However, due to the open-ended nature of Tor, it is not safe to use Tor for sensitive internet communications such as online banking, online shopping, or for connecting to a secure workplace. If encryption and privacy are your top priority, you should always use a VPN.
The Future of Internet Censorship
VPN seems to be one of the most advanced and effective means of bypassing internet censorship and protecting private data. In this day and age where internet communications are constantly monitored, a VPN offers freedom of speech and fights censorship to offer power back to the people. However, it is increasingly looking like even VPN providers are under the radar for providing a free internet, and several countries such as China, Iran, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia are taking the fight to the VPN companies by blocking them from providing services to their citizens.
Top VPN companies are always inventing new technologies and services to ensure that they can continue to offer services to their clients by being able to bypass censorship restrictions imposed on them by several countries. Technology has become a huge part of our lives, and it is inevitable that Governments, as well as censorship organizations, will embed data tracking mechanisms in laptops, phones, tablets, and even personal electronic devices in the near future to ensure that technology users are always tracked, regardless of their social stature.