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How to access information in censored countries

Keystone / Richard Jones

China, Russia, Iran and other countries with dictatorships and strict regimes are increasingly blocking access to the free internet and are using the web to collect data. This guide explains how to avoid online censorship and use the internet safely and anonymously.

How to access blocked websites: proxy servers and VPNs

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

Instead, VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) may be used. A VPN is an encrypted tunnel connection to a server, perhaps in another country, that conceals what is taking place in the tunnel. VPNs may allow access to the internet from a censored area, but they aren’t foolproof. Although they can’t see into the tunnel, censorship authorities can recognise VPNs and who operates them. In many places, they are illegal.

Browsing with Tor

Another option is the Tor browser, available for download on the Tor project’s website. Built in layers like its onion logo, Tor connects users to the internet using a series of detours called Tor nodes. Each node places a layer of encryption over the browser behaviour so it’s unreadable, also by other Tor nodes.

All normal websites can be accessed using Tor, with varying degrees of anonymity. The website operator cannot identify the IP address of the browser or any identifying features because Tor blocks access to this information. To circumvent censorship, Tor has developed so-called pluggable transports. These conceal the nature of internet traffic, so that web surfing may look like email or video conferencing activity, for example.

Sometimes, censorship authorities can counter pluggable transports by seeing how the server responds to their own traffic. If the server doesn’t respond as expected to the traffic sent its way because pluggable transports are being used, authorities may disconnect you. If such traffic is identified, it’s usually stalled and blocked. But it’s possible that authorities will continue to investigate the user.

Browsing with Tor may be slightly less convenient than with a standard browser because it does not save settings or passwords. Some websites or organisations also ban traffic from the Tor network because they deem it unsafe, but it is generally becoming more accepted.

Building bridges

To access Tor from a censored country, you need a so-called bridge. Bridges help users enter the Tor network despite regime blockages. Every Tor user can provide a bridge via their own machine, so if people in countries with free internet access do this, they can give people in censored countries more options for accessing the Tor network.

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

It’s also possible to download pluggable transports via the existing browser settings in Tor. The bridges are also loaded, and the Tor browser continually searches for current bridges itself.

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

There’s also a project called Snowflake that allows all users with normal Chrome or Firefox browsers to provide bridges without a Tor. The Snowflake bridge exists only as long as someone is surfing before “melting away” and becoming unrecognisable.

Secure messaging services

Messaging platforms like WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger are widely used, but the data may not be secure. An alternative is a free app called Signal, whose open source code allows experts to regularly check its security.

How SWI is reaching users in places where censorship exists

One way to access our website is by setting up a VPN.

In addition, we distribute our content via secure messaging services, such as Telegram for Russian and Arabic content, chat services such as WeChat for our Chinese-speaking communities (you can find us in the WeChat app under the username 瑞小编电报), and newsletters.

For our content in Russian, we now offer a daily newsletter with the most important article of the day. You can sign up via this secure link. The article sent in this newsletter can be read directly in the inbox without having to access our site.

This article was adapted from an internet censorship guide originally published on Deutsche Welle. 

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About Swissinfo
SWI – the international service of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SBC). Since 1999, has fulfilled the federal government’s mandate to distribute information about Switzerland internationally, supplementing the online offerings of the radio and television stations of the SBC. Today, the international service is directed above all at an international audience interested in Switzerland, as well as at Swiss citizens living abroad.
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