How can I access blocked content?

Updated:July 2016

Many freelancers work in countries whose governments attempt to limit online access to some websites or services. Here are ways to open it up.

Bypassing censorship can be technically easy, but be careful. When you access censored content, you could be breaking local laws as well. Determine the risks involved and think about how you'll avoid them. Here are some ways to overcome the internet censorship. 

GET STARTED:

  1. Web proxy services
  2. Virtual Private Networks
  3. Web browser plugins
 

Use web proxy services

How can I access blocked content?Anonymous proxies are the main ways to bypass internet censorship. They route your internet activity through other unblocked servers, encrypt your activity and hide your location, allowing you to connect anonymously. People living in countries with oppressive regimes frequently use proxy services to bypass censorship. If you’re working in a country where the government could get information from your online activity and use it against you, then you should seriously consider using a proxy at all times.

THE TOR PROJECT
The major proxy service provider for journalists is Tor. Tor works by encrypting and bouncing your connection around different servers, disguising your IP address and thus allowing you access to content that is normally blocked from your location. It's relatively secure way to avoid internet censorship as well as keep others from monitoring your activitiy.

Tor-onion-network.png
For a more in-depth explanation of how Tor works, see here.

Ways to use Tor:
There are a number of programs, mobile apps and even operating systems that use The Tor Project to connect to the internet. Here are some ways you can get started using it now.

  • Use the Tor Browser. This installs Tor and a web browser that's already configured to use it properly, and is the easiest way to get started.
  • For more comprehensive circumvention, use the Tails operating system. This takes a bit more time to set up and get the hang of. Tails runs off of a USB or DVD, and allows you to use nearly any computer as your own, accessing the internet privately and leaving no trace of your activity on the computer you use.
  • Use Orbot on your Android smartphone along with other apps from The Guardian Project.
  • Read the Security-in-a-Box Guide to Using Tor,
  • Visit the Guardian Project's guide on escaping censorship using Android.

OTHER PROXY SERVICES OPTIONS
 
  • Bitmask is an open source project compatible with a number of services aimed at bypassing censorship and surveillance for web and email.
  • Psyphon is another proxy network that works on multiple platforms for PC and Android mobiles.
  • The Epic Browser is a customisation of Chrome with a focus on privacy, and includes a very quick but simple proxy service that works in some areas better than others. It proxies your internet traffic through a U.S. server that may or may not be blocked where you are.
 

Use a VPN connection

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) do a similar job to Tor, in that they use a proxy service to enable online anonymity. However, they work in slightly different way. Whilst Tor uses multiple proxy servers to ensure anonymity, VPNs operate through a single proxy connection. This can often do the trick for quick access to blocked content, but isn't as untraceable.

There are a few free options here, but VPN is more often a commercial service. Riseup.net offers a free VPN service, for example, that can help you proxy your internet traffic around censorship and monitoring, but it's not as fast as many paid services.

Premium VPN subscription services are generally faster, however, it is important to know that when using a VPN you are relying on "privacy by trust". You are trusting the operator of the VPN service not to look at what you’re doing online (or let anyone else). It is also worth noting that when you are accessing content via a VPN (or Tor or any other proxy service), your internet service provider would be able to view or record the proxy server your computer connects to, even if it can’t see what you’re using it for.

Proxies make sure internet traffic is encrypted, though, and you won't necessarily stand out for using one. Most internet traffic is encrypted, from your banking activity to Amazon purchases or when you connect to a service such as Gmail. Some VPN services are blocked in some countries, though, so research before subscribing. 


For more background:  

Browser Extensions

Browser extensions can be a simple yet effective way to access blocked content. These are primarily available for Firefox or Chrome browsers.

  • Stealthy and Blue Box disguise your IP address, which can work to bypass some kinds of internet filters.
  • uProxy is a free extension developed by Google for Chrome and Firefox that creates a quick detour for your internet traffic.
  • Disconnect.me offers a number of privacy-enhancing tools that also include VPN circumvention.


Although these offer simpler ways to bypass blocked sites than using proxy service software, they can also be considerably less safe. Browser extensions have been hacked in the past. They also only work on the browser you've installed them on, so if you're using other software at the same time, these won't be protected. You should also remember that other browser plugins could counteract one another, so don't overload your web browser if you're trying to stay safe online. For more information, see How can I avoid being monitored online?

 

Thanks to Tor Project researcher Runa Sandvik for contributions to this section. Image credit: Stuart McKinnon. Some background here also comes from Citizen Lab.

Created: July 2013

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