How to access information in censored countries

Keystone / Richard Jones

China, Russia, Iran, and other countries with dictatorships and harsh regimes increasingly block free Internet access and use the Internet to collect information. This guide explains how to avoid online censorship and use the internet safely and anonymously.

This content was published on February 2, 2023 – 3:37 pm

How to access blocked websites: proxy servers and VPNs

Static proxy servers the answer used to be – IP addresses that forward internet traffic. But now many censors have become aware of such credentials and have blocked them.

Instead, VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) can be used. A VPN is an encrypted tunnel connection to a server, possibly in another country, that hides what is happening in the tunnel. VPNs can allow internet access from a censored area, but they are not foolproof. While they can’t see the tunnel, censors can identify VPNs and who’s running them. In many places they are illegal.

Browse with Tor

Another option Tor browserExternal link, Available for download on the Tor project website. Tor, built in layers like the onion logo, connects users to the Internet using a series of paths called Tor nodes. Each node places a layer of encryption on top of the browser’s behavior, so it cannot be read by other Tor nodes.

All normal websites can be accessed using Tor with varying degrees of anonymity. The website operator cannot identify the browser’s IP address or any other identifying features because Tor blocks access to this information. To avoid censorship, Tor developed pluggable vehicles. These hide the nature of internet traffic, so web surfing can appear to be e-mail or video conferencing activity, for example.

Sometimes censors can object to connectable traffic by seeing how the server responds to its traffic. If the server does not respond as expected to traffic sent because pluggable transports are used, authorities may disconnect you. If such traffic is detected, it is usually intercepted and blocked. But maybe the authorities will continue to investigate the user.

Browsing with Tor can be a bit less convenient than a standard browser because it doesn’t store settings or passwords. Some websites or organizations also block traffic from the Tor network because they consider it dangerous, but this is generally more accepted.

Construction of bridges

To access Tor from a censored country, you need a so-called bridge. Bridges help users access the Tor network despite mode blocks. Each Tor user can provide a bridge through their own machine, so if people in countries with free internet access do so, they can give people in censored countries more options to access the Tor network.

To avoid censorship on Tor, you need to use the correct browser settings. During Tor installation, the Firefox-based browser asks if you are in a censored country once. If you confirm this, pluggable transport is loaded automatically.

It is also possible to download transports that can be connected to Tor through existing browser settings. Bridges are also loaded, and the Tor browser continuously searches for the current bridges itself.

Users in uncensored countries will be asked by Tor if they want to provide a bridge. This may have a small impact on internet speed.

There is also a project called SnowflakeExternal link allows all users with regular Chrome or Firefox browsers to provide bridges without Tor. The Snowflake Bridge only exists as long as someone surfs it before it “melts” and becomes unrecognizable.

Secure messaging services

Messaging platforms such as WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger are widely used, but data may not be secure. It’s a free program called Alternative AlarmExternal link, open source code allows experts to regularly check its security.

How SWI reaches users where censorship exists

One way to access our website is to set up a VPN.

In addition, we distribute our content through secure messaging services such as Telegram for the Russian languageExternal link and ArabicExternal link content, chat services for our Chinese-speaking communities, such as WeChat (you can find us on WeChat under the username 瑞自庁电报), and newsletters.

For our content in Russian, we now offer a daily newsletter with the most important article of the day. You can register via this secure linkExternal link. You can read the article sent in this newsletter directly in your inbox without entering our website.

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This article is adapted from internet censorship guidelinesExternal link originally published on Deutsche Welle.

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