Remain anonymous and bypass censorship on the Internet

Many countries around the world have installed software that prevents Internet users within those countries from accessing certain websites and Internet services. Companies, schools and public libraries often use similar software to protect their employees, students and patrons from material that they consider distracting or harmful. This kind of filtering technology comes in a number of different forms. Some filters block a site based on its IP address, while others blacklist certain domain names or search through all unencrypted Internet communication, looking for specific keywords.

Regardless of what filtering methods are present, it is nearly always possible to evade them by relying on intermediary computers, outside your country, to reach blocked services for you. This process is often called censorship circumvention, or simply circumvention, and the intermediary computers are called proxies. Proxies, too, come in many different forms. This guide includes a brief discussion of multiple-proxy anonymity networks followed by a more thorough description of basic circumvention proxies and how they work.

Both of these methods are effective ways to evade Internet filters, although the former is most appropriate if you are willing to sacrifice speed in order to keep your Internet activities as anonymous as possible. If you know and trust the individual or organization that operates your proxy, or if performance is more important to you than anonymity, then a basic circumvention proxy might serve you better.

What you can learn from this guide: 

How to access a website that is blocked from within your country

How to prevent websites that you visit from knowing your location

How to ensure that neither your ISP nor a surveillance organization in your country can determine which websites and Internet services you visit

Introduction to anonymity and circumvention

Mansour and Magda are siblings, in an Arabic-speaking country, who maintain a blog on which they anonymously publicise human rights abuses and campaign for political change. The authorities in their country have not been able to shut down their website, because it is hosted in another country, but they have often tried to learn the identity of the blog's administrators from other activists. Mansour and Magda are concerned that the authorities may be able to monitor their updates and learn who they are. In addition, they want to prepare for when the government eventually filters their website, not only so that they can continue updating it, but also in order to provide good circumvention advice to readers within their own country, who would otherwise lose access to the blog.

Understanding Internet censorship

Research carried out by organisations like the OpenNet Initiative (ONI) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) indicates that many countries filter a wide variety of social, political and 'national security' content, while rarely publishing precise lists of what has been blocked. Naturally, those who wish to control their citizens' access to the Internet also make a special effort to block known proxies and websites that offer tools and instructions to help people circumvent these filters.

Despite the guarantee of free access to information enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the number of countries engaged in Internet censorship has continued to increase dramatically over the past few years. As the practice of Internet filtering spreads throughout the world, however, so does access to the circumvention tools that have been created, deployed and publicised by activists, programmers and volunteers.

Before exploring the various ways to bypass Internet censorship, you should first develop a basic understanding of how these filters work. In doing so, it may be helpful to consider a greatly-simplified model of your connection to the Internet.

Your Internet connection

The first step of your connection to the Internet is typically made through an Internet Service ProviderISP at your home, office, school, library or Internet cafe. The ISP assigns your computer an IPaddress, which various Internet services can use to identify you and send you information, such as the emails and webpages you request. Anyone who learns your IP address can figure out what city you are in. Certain well-connected organisations in your country, however, can use this information to determine your precise location.

  • Your ISP will know which building you are in or which phone line you are using if you access the Internet through a modem.
  • Your Internet cafe, library or business will know which computer you were using at a given time, as well as which port or wireless access point you were connected to.
  • Government agencies may know all of these details, as a result of their influence over the organisations above.

At this stage, your ISP relies on the network infrastructure in your country to connect its users, including you, with the rest of the world. On the other end of your connection, the website or Internet service you are accessing has gone through a similar process, having received its own IP addresses from an ISP in its own country. Even without all of the technical details, a basic model like this can be helpful when considering the various tools that allow you get around filters and remain anonymous on the Internet.

How websites are blocked

Essentially, when you go to view a webpage, you are showing the site's IP address to your ISP and asking it to connect you with the webserver's ISP. And, if you have an unfiltered Internet connection, it will do precisely that. If you are in a country that censors the Internet, however, it will first consult a blacklist of forbidden websites and then decide whether or not to comply with your request.

In some cases, there may be a central organisation that handles filtering in place of the ISPs themselves. Often, a blacklist will contain domain names, such as www.blogger.com, rather than IPaddresses. And, in some countries, filtering software monitors your connection, rather than trying to block specific Internet addresses. This type of software scans through the requests that you make and the pages that are returned to you, looking for sensitive key words and then deciding whether or not to let you see the results.

And, to make matters worse, when a webpage is blocked you may not even know it. While some filters provide a 'block page' that explains why a particular page has been censored, others display misleading error messages. These messages may imply that the page cannot be found, for example, or that the address was misspelled.

In general, it is easiest to adopt a worst-case perspective toward Internet censorship, rather than trying to research all of the particular strengths and weaknesses of the filtering technologies used in your country. In other words, you might as well assume that:

  • Your Internet traffic is monitored for keywords
  • Filtering is implemented directly at the ISP level
  • Blocked sites are blacklisted by both their IP addresses and their domain names
  • You may be given an unclear or misleading reason to explain why a blocked site fails to load.

Because the most effective circumvention tools can be used regardless of which filtering methods are in place, it does not generally do any harm to make these pessimistic assumptions

Mansour: So, if I find one day that I can't access the blog, but a friend in another country can still see it just fine, does that mean the government has blocked it?

Magda: Not necessarily. There could be some problem that only affects people who are trying to reach the website from here. Or, it could be some issue with your computer that only shows up on certain types of webpages. You're on the right track, though. You could also try visiting it yourself while using a circumvention tool. After all, most of these tools rely on external proxy servers, which is a bit like asking a friend in another country to test a website for you, except you get to do it yourself.

Understanding censorship circumvention

If you cannot go directly to a website because it is blocked by one of the methods discussed above, you will need to find a way around the obstruction. A secure proxy server, located in a country that does not filter the Internet, can provide this kind of detour by fetching the webpages you request and delivering them to you. From your ISP's perspective, you will simply appear to be communicating securely with an unknown computer (the proxy server) somewhere on the Internet.

Of course, the government agency in charge of Internet censorship in your country (or the company that provides updates for its filtering software) might eventually learn that this 'unknown computer' is really a circumvention proxy. If that happens, its IP address may itself be added to the blacklist , and it will no longer work. It usually takes some time forproxies to be blocked, however, and those who create and update circumvention tools are well aware of this threat. They typically fight back using one or both of the following methods:

  • Hidden proxies are more difficult to identify. This is one of the reasons why it is important to use secure proxies, which tend to be less obvious. Encryption is only part of the solution, however. The operators of a proxy must also take care when revealing its location to new users if they want it to remain hidden.

  • Disposable proxies can be replaced very quickly after they are blocked. In this case, the process of telling users how to find replacement proxies may not be particularly secure. Instead, circumvention tools of this type often simply try to distribute new proxies faster than they can be blocked.

In the end, as long as you can reach a proxy that you trust to fetch the services you ask for, all you have to do is send it your requests and view whatever comes back using the appropriate Internet application. Typically, the details of this process are handled automatically by circumvention software that you install on your computer, by modifying your browser settings or by pointing your browser to a web-based proxy page. The Tor anonymity network, described below, uses the first method. Following that is a discussion of basic, singleproxy circumvention tools, each of which works in a slightly different manner.

Anonymity networks and basic proxy servers
Anonymity networks

Anonymity networks typically 'bounce' your Internet traffic around between various secure proxies in order to disguise where you are coming from and what you are trying to access. This can significantly reduce the speed at which you are able to load websites and other Internet services. In the case of Tor , however, it also provides a reliable, secure and public means of circumvention that saves you from having to worry about whether or not you trust the individuals who operate your proxies and the websites you visit. As always, you must ensure that you have an encrypted connection, HTTPS, to a secure website before exchanging sensitive information, such as passwords and emails, through a browser.

You will have to install software to use Tor, but the result is a tool that provides anonymity as well as circumvention. Each time you connect to the Tor network, you select a random path through three secure Tor proxies. This ensures that neither your ISP nor the proxies themselves know both your computer's IPaddress and the location of the Internet services you request. You can learn much more about this tool from the Tor Guide.

One of Tor's strengths is that it does not just work with a browser but can be used with various types of Internet software. Email programs, including Mozilla Thunderbird,and instant messaging programs,including Pidgin, can operate through Tor, either to access filtered services or to hide your use of those services.

Basic circumvention proxies

There are three important questions that you should consider when selecting a basic circumvention proxy . First, is it a web-based tool or does it require you to change settings or install software on your computer? Second, is it secure? Third, is it private or public?

Web-based and other proxies

Web-based proxies are probably the easiest to use. They require only that you point your browser at a proxy webpage, enter the filtered address you wish to view and click one button. The proxy will then display the requested content inside its own webpage. You can follow links normally or enter a new address into the proxy if you want to view a different page. You do not need to install any software or change any browser settings, which means that web-based proxies are:

  • Easy to use
  • Reachable from public computers, such as those at Internet cafes, that may not allow you to install programs or change settings
  • Potentially safer if you are concerned about being 'caught' with circumvention software on your computer

Web-based proxies tend to have certain disadvantages, as well. They do not always display pages correctly, and many web-based proxies will fail to load complex websites, including those that feature streaming audio and video content. Also, while any proxy will slow down as it gains more users, this tends to be more of an issue with public web-based proxies. And, of course, web-based proxies only work for webpages. You can not, for example, use an instant messaging program or an email client to access blocked services through a web-based proxy. Finally, secure web-based proxies offer limited confidentiality because they must themselves access and modify the information returned to you by the websites you visit. If they did not, you would be unable to click on a link without leaving the proxy behind and attempting to make a direct connection to the target webpage. This is discussed further in the following section.

Other types of proxies generally require you to install a program or configure an external proxy address in your browser or operating system. In the first case, your circumvention program will typically provide some way of turning the tool on and off, which will tell your browser whether or not to use the proxy. Software like this often allows you to change proxies automatically if one is blocked, as discussed above. If you have to configure an external proxy address in your browser or operating system, you will need to learn the correct proxy address, which may change if that proxy is blocked or slows down so much that it becomes unusable.

Although it may be slightly more difficult to use than a web-based proxy,this method of circumvention is more likely to display complex pages correctly and may take longer to slow down as more people begin to use a given proxy server. Furthermore, proxies can be found for a number of different Internet applications. Examples include HTTP proxies for browsers, SOCKS proxies for email and chat programs and VPN proxies, which can redirect all of your Internet traffic to avoid filtering.

Secure and insecure proxies

A secure proxy, in this guide, refers to any proxy that supports encrypted connections from its users. An insecure proxy will still allow you to bypass many types of filtering, but will fail if your Internet connection is being scanned for key words or particular website addresses.It is a particularly bad idea to use an insecure proxy when accessing websites that are normally encrypted, such as webmail accounts and banking websites. By doing so, you may expose sensitive information that would normally be hidden. And, as mentioned previously, insecure proxies are often easier for those who update Internet filtering software and policies to discover and block. In the end, the fact that free, fast, secure proxies exist means that there are very few good reasons to settle for an insecure one.

You will know that a web-based proxy is secure if you can access the proxy webpage itself using an HTTPS address. As with webmail services, secure and insecure connections may be supported, so you should be certain to use the secure address. It may happen that, in such cases, you will be asked to accept a 'security certificate warning' from your browser in order to continue. This is the case for the Peacefire proxy, discussed below. Warnings like this tell you that someone, such as your ISP or a hacker, could be monitoring your connection to the proxy. Despite these warnings, it may be still a good idea to use secure proxies whenever possible. However, when relying on such proxies for circumvention, you should avoid visiting secure websites unless you verify the proxy's SSL fingerprint. In order to do this, you will need a way of securely communicating with the proxy's administrator. It is best not to enter passwords or exchange sensitive information when using web proxies in general.

You should also avoid accessing sensitive information through a web-based proxy unless you trust the person who runs it. This applies regardless of whether or not you see a security certificate warning when you visit the proxy. It even applies if you know the proxy operator well enough to verify the server's fingerprint before directing your browser to accept the warning. When you rely on a single proxy server for circumvention, its administrator will always know your IP address and which website/s you are accessing. More importantly, however, if that proxy is web-based, a malicious operator could gain access to all of the information that passes between your browser and the websites you visit, including the content of your webmail and your passwords.

For proxies that are not web-based, you may have to do a little research to determine whether or not secure connections are supported. All of the proxies and anonymity networks recommended in this guide are secure.

Public and private proxies

Public proxies accept connections from anyone, whereas private proxies typically require a username and password. While public proxies have the obvious advantage of being freely available, assuming they can be found, they tend to become overcrowded very quickly. As a result, even though public proxies may be as technically sophisticated and well-maintained as private ones, they are often relatively slow. Finally, private proxies tend to be run either as for-profit businesses or by administrators who create accounts for users that they know personally or socially. Because of this, it is generally easier to determine what motivates the operators of a private proxy. You should not assume, however, that private proxies are therefore fundamentally more trustworthy. After all, the profit motive has led online services to expose their users in the past.

Simple, insecure, public proxies can often be found by searching for terms like 'public proxy' in a search engine, but you should not rely on proxies discovered this way. Given the choice, it is better to use a private, secure proxy run by people that you know and trust, either personally or by reputation, and who have the technical skill to keep their server secure. Whether or not you use a web-based proxy will depend on your own particular needs and preferences. Any time you are using a proxy for circumvention, it is also a good idea to use the Firefox browser and to install the NoScript browser extension, as discussed in the Firefox Guide. Doing so can help protect you both from malicious proxies and from websites that might try to discover your real IP address. Finally, keep in mind that even an encrypted proxy will not make an insecure website secure. You must still ensure that you have an HTTPS connection before sending or receiving sensitive information.

If you are unable to find an individual, organisation or company whose proxy service you consider trustworthy, affordable and accessible from your country, you should consider using the Tor anonymity network, which is discussed above, under Anonymity networks.

Specific circumvention proxies

Below are a few specific tools and proxies that can help you circumvent Internet filtering. New circumvention tools are produced regularly, and existing ones are updated frequently, so you should visit the online Security in-a-Box website, and the resources mentioned in the Further reading section below, to learn more.

Virtual Private Network (VPN) based proxies

VPN proxies listed below make your entire Internet connection pass through the proxy while you are "connected". This can be helpful if you use email or instant messaging providers that are filtered in your country

Riseup VPN. It is for users who have email accounts on the Riseup server. The collective offers the possibility of connecting to a secure, private, free VPN proxy server. Please read more about Riseup VPN and on how to connect to it.

Your-Freedom is a private, secure, VPN/SOCKS circumvention proxy. It is a freeware tool that that can be used to access a free circumvention service. There are restrictions on bandwidth and for how long can you can use it (3 hours per day, up to 9 hours per week). You can also pay a fee to access a commercial service, which is faster and has fewer limitations. In order to use Your-Freedom, you will need to download the tool and create an account, both of which can be done at the Your-Freedom website. You will also need to configure your browser to use the OpenVPN proxy when connecting to the Internet. You can read more in Your-Freedom documentation.

Freegate is a public, secure, VPN, freeware circumvention proxy. You can download the latest version of Freegate or read interesting article about it.

SecurityKISS is a public, secure, VPN, freeware circumvention proxy. To use it you need to download and run a free program. There is no need to register an account. Free users are restricted to a 300 MB per day usage limit and by higher Internet traffic through the proxy. Paid subscription offers restriction-free usage and more VPN servers. Please see the SecurityKISS homepage to learn more.

Psiphon3 is a secure, public circumvention tool that utilizes VPN, SSH and HTTP Proxy technology to provide you with uncensored access to Internet content. In order to use it you need to download the program from the Psiphon3 homepage and run it to select which mode you would like to use VPN, SSH, SSH+. Psiphon3 works with Android devices as well. Please see the homepage to learn more.

Web Proxies:

Peacefire maintains a large number of public, web-based proxies, which can be secure or insecure, depending on how you access them. When using a Peacefire proxy, you must enter the HTTPS address in order to have a secure connection between yourself and the proxy. New proxies are announced to a large mailing list on a regular basis. You can sign up to receive updates at the Peacefire website.

Further reading: 

See the 2.5 Internet Surveillance and Monitoring and 2.6 Censorship circumvention chapters of the Digital Security and Privacy Manual for Human Rights Defenders book.

The FLOSS Manuals website contains a guide on How to Bypass Internet Censorship.

The Internet Censorship Wiki, written by Freerk, is available in English, German and Spanish.

The CitizenLab has produced Everyone's guide to by-passing Internet Censorship, which is being translated into Burmese, English, French, Russian, Spanish and Urdu.

Reporters Without Borders has released a second edition of its Handbook for Bloggers and Cyberdissidents, which is available in Arabic, Burmese, Chinese, English, Farsi, French, Russian and Spanish.

Ethan Zuckerman of Global Voices Online has published a useful guide to Anonymous Blogging with Wordpress and Tor.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.

security in-a-box is a project of Tactical Technology Collective and Front Line Defenders.