How to Bypass Web Filtering and Censorship In The UK and Turkey

Governments are afraid of the Internet. It is the final medium where people can publish whatever they wish, to an audience of an infinite size. The Internet has brought down governments, unveiled corruption and is one of the most potent forces for freedom and democracy.

In Turkey, both Twitter and YouTube have been blocked at the ISP level, after allegations of corruption by Prime Minister Reycep Tayyip Erdogan was unveiled. The ban of Twitter was later overturned by the ruling of a constitutional court, although Erdogan is challenging this ruling.

Meanwhile in the UK, the ruling Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition has mandated that ISPs implement mandatory opt-out filtering of all ‘objectionable content’. This has been hugely controversial, with the quality of the filters being questioned on multiple occasions, and the implementation described as another step towards censorship.

With this in mind, perhaps it’s time we took another look at how best to bypass Internet censorship, with a focus on these two countries.

Changing DNS Settings Won’t Save You

In the wake of Twitter being banned in Turkey, some took to the streets armed with red spray paint, and painted the address of Google free public DNS service everywhere they could. Initially, it effectively defeated the censorship of Twitter, largely because the initial way in which Twitter was blocked was actually quite rudimentary.

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Turkish ISPs changed their DNS record for Twitter to something entirely different. When people using these ISPs typed ‘twitter.com’ into their browsers, they were redirected to somewhere other than Twitter. As a result, when people changed their DNS records to ‘8.8.8.8’ and ‘8.8.4.4’, they were able to access an unfiltered, unsanitized version of the Internet.

That didn’t last long. Turkish ISPs soon wised on and started hijacking Google DNS queries. The problem with changing your DNS records as a method of defeating censorship is that it’s easily countered. We have to try something different.

Let’s Talk About VPNs

I’ve got a soft-spot for VPNs. I enjoy reviewing them. I like talking about them. Perhaps my favorite thing about VPNs is that they are actually a pretty powerful tool for fighting censorship, largely because people use them for other things.

But how do they work? Simply put, you forward your network through a remote server, with the remote server acting as a go-between for you, and the wider Internet. Traffic is almost always transmitted with strong encryption, meaning that any third parties between you and the remote server cannot see what you’re up to.

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Companies routinely issue VPNs to employees when they work remotely. VPNs are an easy way for companies to allow employees access to the internal network, without them having to actually be chained to a desk in the office. It also allows them to work from hotel or airport Wi-Fi without anyone being able to spy on their traffic.

As a result, it’s pretty much impossible to meaningfully ban VPN protocols without actively screwing over a lot of businesses. As a result, to this day, VPNs remain the most potent way to defeat Internet censorship.

If you’re looking for a VPN service, my colleagues have aggregated some of the best VPN products.

What About TOR?

TOR (The Onion Router) is a censorship-resistant protocol for transmitting data without revealing the identity of the original sender. It was initially funded by the US Naval Research Laboratory, and has since received support from DARPA and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

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It uses something called Onion Routing which – in the most simplest of terms – works by forwarding network traffic through a myriad of hops, with all data being encrypted with a secure, strong cypher. Eventually, it reaches an endpoint, where it is then transmitted to the wider Internet

Make no mistakes. TOR is powerful. How powerful? Well, a site acting as Amazon for drug dealers, assassins and credit card fraudsters was able to operate openly in the United States for years. This site was called The Silk Road, and was felled only after a comprehensive off-line investigation by the US authorities.

TOR has been used by millions of people in order to access a free and open Internet. It doesn’t cost anything to use, and getting started with it isn’t difficult.

So, what’s the catch? Well, there are some pretty obvious flaws with TOR. Firstly, anyone can operate an endpoint. And anyone can sit on that endpoint and capture traffic. You see where I’m going with this, right? You’re dependent upon the person at the end-point being a decent, honest human being. Would you trust the entirety of your Internet traffic to one person?

I wouldn’t.

Opting Out Of Censorship

In the UK, Internet filtering can be opted out of. All you need to do is phone up your ISP and explain that you’d like your traffic to be uncensored. You should really think twice about doing this.

Why? Well, when you opt out, you are effectively placing yourself on a list of people who have expressed a desire to see adult material. As we’ve seen in the past, some companies can be pretty careless about how they retain and store personal information. It could be incredibly damaging and embarrassing, should that list come out.

Understand The Legal Ramifications

One thing we’ve not touched upon is the legal repercussions for circumventing censorship. Firstly, allow me to unambiguously state that I am not a lawyer. If you’re worried about any of the topics covered in this article, please speak to a legal professional.

But I do know that TOR and VPNs are not illegal. They’re protocols, and they have not been blocked by any court judgement or legislation in the United Kingdom.

Things get a bit more ambiguous when you release a product which intends to unblock a specific site which has been blocked by court order. An example of this was when the UK Pirate Party released a Pirate Bay specific proxy, which was taken down after a few months when the British Phonographic Industry threatened to begin proceedings against high-ranking members of the UK Pirate Party.

As a result, I’d encourage anyone concerned about the legality of their circumvention methods to speak to a trained, qualified legal professional.

Stay Informed

The Internet has never been more threatened. Despite this, there are still guarantors of Internet freedom. We just need to be informed about them.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this article. As always, drop me a comment below and let me know what you think.

The comments were closed because the article is more than 180 days old.

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18 Comments -

A aldridge

When using VPN , what does your Internet Provider see ? Is your data encrypted to the accessibility of your ISP ?
Concern being an employee of an ISP being able to spy on your internet communications.

Thanks

Matthew H

Nothing, basically. It’s encrypted from one point to the other. Your ISP cannot see what you’re up to.

Phil

Is it worth giving DNSCrypt a mention too?

http://www.opendns.com/about/innovations/dnscrypt/

Matthew H

Hmm, interesting. I wonder how DNSCrypt works with respect to non-DNS based blocking solutions.

Sam J

Whilst I am with you on the bulk of your article I think what can be inferred by opting out is a little bit much. Given the filters offered cover quite a range including BT, TalkTalk and Sky all include dating, gambling, and websites that promote plagerism for homework as options alongside the more obvious categories you mention turning the filter off may not put you on the watch list. As I think the intention in the UK is vaguely in the right place (the UK Government make no secret of the powers to look into and monitor pretty much the lot) the main purpose is to offset the fact that parents don’t do enough to protect young people online . It is there for ironic that one can imagine when dad can’t see his fantasy football scores online he will log on to BT etc and check turn all off rather than think of the options. The big problem is the filter won’t educate parents on how to teach kids about the darker sides of the internet but it will give them the feeling their 13yr old is fine alone in their room on his or her laptop. Censorship is appropriate at a household by household level set by the family but you won’t get that by this route. I Apologise for the ramble just I think we don’t treat restrictions to content as a purely bad thing and on the otherside we don’t think right that’s the children all protected job done.

Matthew H

But why is it the responsibility of the government to even filter the Internet in the first place? Surely that responsibility lies with parents and consumers, not the government.

Sam J

Well I agree it isn’t and I guess if were looking at this from an Americans point of view the notion seems incomprehensible. The issue we have is that no one is going to argue that minors should have access to porn and gambling etc (I may be wrong but society as whole has a few consistent lines in the sand as it were) but we know too well that many parents barely take responsibility for themselves let alone anyone else. I speak with a lot of people on consumer issues and the bulk of “normal parents” would have no idea how to set up a firewall and we have to remember that a lot of parents want this as standard because the don’t have the luxury that do of know how this stuff works hence my concern that they may now thing that’s it don’t need to check wha my child is doing online. I think in essence we agree it isnt the governments job but we know they will have to pay for the cost somewhere down the line. And on Godalls point all traffic of us UK citizens (technically subjects which is how MI5 etc being a Crown body can navigate through some of the issues on privacy more easily the Europe and the US but that’s for another day) all trafic is monitored but I would worry less about what the civil servant knowa about you because it those providers who want to sell to you and make money off you and your ISP knows everything!

Michael Dowling

TPP is it the final stage of negotiations.If it is adopted,I imagine there will be millions of people suddenly interested in VPNs: https://stopthesecrecy.net/

Matthew H

Agreed. TPP is scary. Doubly so due to the underhand way in which it’s being pushed.

Godel

You’ve missed the point of Tor. It’s primarily designed to conceal your identity, not the information that you’re sending. You should use additional encryption or rely on SSL being implemented by the site that you are communicating with.

As a matter of fact, it’s widely assumed that many of the exit portals in the US are run by the US government. Tor’s real downfall for general use is that it’s slow.

I also think you’ve misunderstood the nature of the UK’s censorship regime. From my previous reading I believe ALL UK internet traffic will be examined, whether you opt out or not. The only difference is that they will not act on the information if you’ve opted out, but the data is still examined and probably stored by the government.

Here’s a timely article from Torrent Freak: http://torrentfreak.com/which-vpn-services-take-your-anonymity-seriously-2014-edition-140315/

Ashley

I am subscribing to the VPN named Cloak. What are your thoughts about this one? Thanks…

Matthew H

Never heard of it, I’m afraid!

d2

blocking youtube and twitter, a big mistake, its like blocking the television or media

Matthew H

Precisely. Thanks for your comment!

Denise E

I came to this article as I used to live in the UK and was interested in what it had to say about VPNs. I think this is a really specific topic, but I am quite keen on not accessing BBC iPlayer via illegal means, whilst still enjoying the best of British Television in a country that is not of the UK.

So what I’d like to know is, is it illegal or not to access bbc iplayer material that is free to view in the UK, via a VPN if I were in a different country?

Cheers.

Matthew H

Criminally illegal? No. Probably a breach of their TOCs, but you’re almost certainly not going to get sued for accessing iPlayer with a VPN. Although, I’d encourage you to check out Hola. It’s free, and just as good.

Denise E

Thanks for telling me about Hola. Now to decide whether I am happy breaching TOCs and not getting sued, or happier attempting to take the moral “high ground”.. whatever that is.

Matthew H

Eh. It’s not as though you’re depriving anyone of anything. Nobody would be worse off from you watching iPlayer from wherever you are. I’d just go ahead and use Hola.