Can Technology Outsmart Internet Censorship?

The invention of the Internet has sparked a new age of global unity. More than ever before, people around the world can connect with each other regardless of physical location. Millions of people are no longer limited by what knowledge is available in their local library, but can now access information on any topic, freely and anonymously.

Unfortunately, many countries consider this new-found freedom to be a threat. Countries like Iran, Cuba, China, Syria, and more have tightly controlled their local media for decades, and in the past few years have begun to place similar restrictions on Internet access.

Fearful of how unrestricted access to the Internet could affect their citizens, these countries strictly censor the information available online. Blogs by individuals that oppose the government are often blocked, as well as anti-government media sites, and other sources of information that may disagree with the regime and their ideologies. Social media services such as Twitter, where those with similar anti-government views can express their views and connect with each other, have also been frequently blocked. In some cases, such as in Egypt during the revolutionary Arab Spring movement in 2011, the government blocked all access to the Internet as a whole.

Or at least, they tried to. Every time a government has begun restricting Internet freedom, the millions of people affected by censorship have found ways to fight back.

During the Arab Spring revolution, many Egyptians found ways of getting online despite the government attempting to block all access to the Internet. Thousands of people went online via foreign ISPs using modem connections through their landlines, and sent tweets through a voicemail service provided by Google and Twitter.

The government’s attempt to stamp out Internet freedom during the revolution actually had the opposite effect: ten times the number of tweets were sent out during the Internet blackout than during the previous week, and by the end of the year the number of Egyptians with Facebook profiles doubled to over 10 million.

Using technological tools such as Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), Tor (a.k.a. The Onion Router), and web proxies, anyone in any country can bypass censorship and protect themselves from government surveillance by accessing the Internet anonymously.

By using these tools, millions of people in countries affected by censorship can exercise their rights to freely access and disseminate information, and fight back against censorship.

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Can Technology Outsmart Internet Censorship?

Over the last 3 years, online censorship has soared to new heights – but so too has user vigilance. We’ll show you some of the ways that people are fighting back.

  • 34 countries have increased internet censorship since 2012
  • 39 countries actively filtered online content in 2013
  • +685 million internet users live in the 10 countries worst affected by censorship
  • 19 countries blocked one or more social media or VoIP service(s)
  • 35 countries boosted online surveillance by law and/or investment
  • >1.4 billion internet users live in countries where internet is not free or only partly free >685 million internet users live in the 10 countries worst affected by censorship.

Top 10 countries for internet censorship in 2013*(Freedom House Score on Net Freedom 61< = not free)

  1. Iran (91)
    • Population: 78.9 million
    • Number of internet users: 30 million
  2. Cuba (86)
    • Population: 11.2 million
    • Number of internet users: 2.8 million
  3. China (86)
    • Population: 1.35 billion
    • Number of internet users: 564 million
  4. Syria (85)
    • Population: 22.5 million
    • Number of internet users: 5.4 million
  5. Ethiopia (79)
    • Population: 87 million
    • Number of internet users: 1.3 million
  6. Uzbekistan (78)
    • Population: 29.8 million
    • Number of internet users: 10.8 million
  7. Vietnam (75)
    • Population: 89 million
    • Number of internet users: 35.1 million
  8. Bahrain (72)
    • Population: 1.3 million
    • Number of internet users: 1.1 million
  9. Saudi Arabia (70)
    • Population: 28.7 million
    • Number of internet users: 15.5 million
  10. Pakistan (67)
    • Population: 180 million
    • Number of internet users: 18 million

* excluding North Korea.

But we have seen spectacular workarounds.

Egypt

25-28 January 2011 – The Egyptian government progressively blocked social and other media sites – then shut down all internet and mobile networks.

Reactions:

  • Foreign ISP’s provided modem connection through landline
  • Google and Twitter set up service converting voicemails into tweets for #egypt
  • 1,317,233 Egyptian related tweets through January 24-30 – 10x more than a week before.

Results:

  • Internet connection was restored on 2 February but content remained censored
  • 2 million 10.6 million growth of Egyptian Facebook accounts from

January to December 2011

  • 140,000 1 million the growth Egyptian HotSpot Shield VPN users during revolution.

Turkey

20 March 2014 – Telecommunications companies blocked Twitter.

Reaction:

  • Users sent tweets in sms
  • Users changed their Domain Name Settings (DNS) following instructions
  • 29% of Turkish users (5.77 million people) used Virtual Private Networks (VPN) at the time of the ban.

Results:

2.5 million tweets posted by Turkish users in less than 24 hours – that’s 17,000 tweets per minute.

Turkish Tweet record broken by 138%

Turkey’s constitutional court lifted the Twitter ban on 3 April.

Russia

13 March 2014 – Russian IPOs blocked websites run by opposition movements: kasparov.ru, EJ.ru, Grani.ru, echo.msk.ru, and the Live Journal blog of Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny.

Reaction:

  • A ‘mirroring’ technique was developed: a programmer added the IP-address of Life News – a pro-government news site – to the IP-address record of the blocked Navalny blog. Service Providers blocked the fake IP-address and filtered out the pro-government Life News.

Result:

  • After a few days, Navalny’s blog was removed from the blacklist.

The top tools to beat censorship:

  1. Virtual Private Network (VPN) = a technology using encrypted tunnels in online communication
    • 250,000 the daily number of downloads of Hotspot Shield VPN since 2013
    • 19% of people around the world use VPN to hide browsing details from governments
    • Popular VPN’s include
      1. Private Internet Access
      2. Norton Hotspot Privacy
      3. Hotspot Shield Elite
      4. proXPN 2.5.0.
      5. VPN Direct
  2. The Onion Router (TOR) is a network of tunnels and nodes that provide zigzagging online pathways to:
    • 300% the growth rate of Tor usage between 2013 and 2014
    • The Tor Browser Bundle (latest version: 3.5.4) is currently the most popular software for user security
  3. Simple web proxies = website-form applications that use intermediary web servers to bypass national filters and jump firewalls.
    • Popular Proxy Servers include:
      1. HMA VPN
      2. PureVPN
      3. IPVanish VPN
      4. OverPlay VPN
      5. CyberGhost VPN

Dreams of a democratic internet are still hampered by political regimes and dictators. But the growing popularity of circumvention tools and the examples of global solidarity show that the people can fight back.

Sources

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