Web Culture

5 Brilliant Ways Tech-Savvy People Worked Around Censorship

Dann Albright 12-02-2015

An ad-hoc mesh network, spreading across Havana, connects people without Internet access. Hot air balloons carry news  of the outside world, and American TV shows, to the people of North Korea.


When it comes to protesting oppressive regimes, brutal anti-demonstration tactics, and widespread censorship Why The Next 10 Years Looks Bad for Internet Censorship Although denizens of the world are learning more about censorship and learning new ways to counteract it, the outlook for the future of Internet freedom isn't looking good. Read More , the Internet is an invaluable tool. But what happens when you can’t rely on the Internet? What if the stranglehold of censorship is too tight, physical access is restricted, or the threat of repercussions is too great? Here are five stories of overcoming adversity to share information in the most difficult of situations.

Havana’s Wi-Fi Network

The citizens of Cuba have very limited access to the Internet. The government claims that the US embargo has prevented the movement of advanced technology into the country, but activist organizations say that the government uses this as an excuse to censor information and charge exorbitant fees for access.

Whatever the case, it’s very expensive to get on the internet in Cuba. In a country where the average wage is around $25 per month, many people can’t afford to have a computer and access to the web, but Cubans have become very good at improvising ways to get around the problems they face.


For example, Havana’s StreetNet (SNet) is a wi-fi only information-sharing network; for around $200, a group of computers can be fit with extra-powerful wi-fi antennas and the proper cabling to form a node for the network, which communicates with other computers directly – without access to the internet.


An AP story reported that the network shares popular TV shows and movies, and lets users play games, share files, check sports scores, and even access a downloaded version of Wikipedia 4 Free Tools to Download and Take Wikipedia Offline Read More that’s regularly updated by users with access to the internet.

Owning wi-fi equipment in Cuba requires a special license from the government, which many — if not most  — SNet users don’t have. This means that the network violates Cuban law, which puts it at risk of being shut down. However, the users of SNet police themselves when it comes to content, and the government has turned a blind eye to the network. To keep it that way, there are rules: no pornography, political discussions, anything that could be considered critical of the government, or even file-sharing outside of prescribed hours.

The almost 9,000 users of the network, as long as they obey these rules, feel safe using it. It seems impossible that the government wouldn’t know of such a large network, but its continued existence suggests that they’ll allow it as long as no one causes trouble

Balloon-Dropping the Outside World into North Korea

As we saw in Matt’s article about the technological situation in North Korea This is What Technology In North Korea Looks Like In North Korea’s isolation, they’ve developed their own Internet. Their own technology industry. Even their own tablet computers. Here’s what digital life in the DPRK looks like. Read More , censorship and the limitation of physical access to the internet prevent the vast majority of North Koreans from seeing what the world outside of the country looks like. But activists in South Korea are doing what they can to smuggle information over the border.


One imaginative tactic that they’ve used to do this is to loft 20-foot-tall helium balloons over the border from a mountain on the South Korean side of the demilitarized zone. The balloons are painted with anti-regime slogans and carry packages of DVDs, USB drives, radios, and thousands of leaflets detailing life in the outside world. A timer is attached to each balloon, and once they’ve traveled deep into North Korean territory, the timer goes off, the balloon is popped, and the payload is dropped into the countryside.

Obviously, this isn’t the most subtle way to get information into the country. North Korea does know about these drops, and has made a number of threats against the organizations that send the balloons. One of these groups, Fighters for a Free North Korea, has been threatened by Pyongyang — in one case, the South Korean government took the threat so seriously that 300 policemen were sent to the launch site. Park Sang Hak, the leader of the group, was arrested as he tried to make it to another site. He was kept in jail for six hours, then released.

This certainly wasn’t the only time Park was threatened. The Atlantic reports that a North Korean assassin tried to kill him in Seoul, in 2011, with a poisoned needle hidden in a pen. A tip-off from the South Korean government saved his life.

As long as the totalitarian Kim regime rules the DPRK, Fighters for a Free North Korea will loft their balloons across the border, bringing hardware, information, and even American TV shows to North Koreans – evidently Desperate Housewives is quite popular.


Using Old-School Tech in Syria

Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, technology has played a significant role for both governments and rebels. Telecomix, a hacker collective, has done a great deal to support the people behind uprisings around the Arab world, including Egypt, Syria, and Libya.

Unlike Anonymous, Lulzsec, and Lizard Squad, Telecomix is more interested in creation and assistance than desctruction and irritation (though, to be fair, some people hold the former groups up as freedom fighters LulzSec & Anonymous - Online Heroes Or Dangerous, Reckless Hackers? By now, you're probably aware of the mayhem and mischief that both LulzSec and Anonymous have claimed responsibility for. If not, I'm here to educate you. Both seem to have a feared and revered reputation... Read More ). Telecomix has been branded as a sort of “international tech support” for people living under oppressive regimes. For example, when communicating with rebels who were attempting to hold Tahrir Square, Telecomix sent them instructions for creating a mesh network Mesh Networks: The Future of Communication Mesh networks are almost invulnerable. In a mesh network, there are no choke points through which all traffic passes. Instead, information is passed from one device to the next until it reaches its destination. Read More , and taking standard clock radios and turning them into two-way radios so that protestors could stay organized.


Since the start of the civil war in Syria, Bashar al-Assad’s government has tried to control or disrupt access to the Internet — not only to block communication between rebel cells, but also to keep videos and reports of atrocities and war crimes from reaching the outside world. Access to the internet around the country is spotty, and can go down completely in a city or region before an attack.


Despite the governmental crackdown, Telecomix has been finding ways to help Syrian rebels communicate, share information, and get news to and from the outside world. They spread messages through Facebook and Twitter with numbers that allow Syrians to access to dial-up internet, and another number where they can leave a message and have it tweeted.

Telecomix and Anonymous also put together a PDF of useful dial-up numbers and radio frequencies, then found ways to fax them into the country. Telecomix distributed online safety tips, to help keep people safe and avoid internet surveillance Avoiding Internet Surveillance: The Complete Guide Internet surveillance continues to be a hot topic so we've produced this comprehensive resource on why it's such a big deal, who's behind it, whether you can completely avoid it, and more. Read More . The support of Telecomix helped Syrian citizens stay safe, and helped rebels keep in touch with each other and the outside world.


Of course, helping the rebels is a double-edged sword. Many international organizations and governments have expressed concerns over the tactics used not only by al-Assad, but also by the rebel militants, who — much like the current regime — carefully tailor the messages and views they present to the world.

Finding Cracks in the Great Firewall of China

Unlike North Korea, China’s system for restricting free access to the Internet is quite sophisticated — access to the Internet is encouraged, and there are more internet users in China than any other country on earth. While attempting to become one of the world’s foremost nations, Beijing has invested a great deal of money and effort in increasing Internet access.

But they don’t promote completely unrestricted, open access to all of the content that’s out there. Their censorship technology is some of the most complex in the world, and it’s often created by big-name American companies like Cisco. Both Google and Yahoo have been implicated in helping the Chinese government censor information, or access potentially incriminating e-mails.


The Great Firewall of China, though, isn’t invincible. Many activists are working on ways to bypass internet censorship How to Bypass Blocked Sites and Internet Restrictions Need to access a blocked website? Try these tips and tricks to bypass internet restrictions and view the content you want. Read More put in place by the government. Dynamic Internet Technologies (DIT), founded by a Chinese-born software engineer in the United States, uses a program called FreeGate to look for weaknesses in the wall and exploit them. It allows unrestricted anonymous access to sites that are censored by the Chinese government, by hosting them on quickly-changing temporary URLs.

As the Chinese get better at fighting back, DIT gets better at advancing its tactics — the app is updated frequently, and has gone through many iterations. The founder of DIT also gets information into the country by sending millions of e-mails to subscribers of banned publications and activist groups — the e-mails contain links to the proxy network of sites, giving recipients access to restricted information.

Starting Fires with Messaging in Hong Kong

Hong Kong has seen a great deal of unrest lately, with protests in the country gaining international attention. But to keep protestors from sharing information with each other and mainland China, both the Hong Kong and Chinese governments have restricted access to the Internet and information-sharing capabilities on social networks.

To get around these restrictions, a new type of messaging app has been adopted by many in Hong Kong. It’s called FireChat, and it allows users to post to public chatrooms without accessing the Internet. It uses cellular networks, wi-fi, phones’ cell radios, and Bluetooth to create a mesh network between phones. Even if a cell network or wi-fi isn’t available, messages can be relayed through phones that are in close proximity.


The app is in wide use in Hong Kong, with over 100,000 users. A reported 33,000 users accessed the service at one time last September. Protesters use the app to post about required supplies, share protest tactics, and spread rumors about government actions.

Because of the unruly nature of public forums, the information spread through FireChat can be questionable. Nevertheless, it’s proven a valuable tool in Hong Kong, as well as in Taiwan, Iran, and other places where communication is limited or risky. Because Internet access is necessary to download the app, its use in mainland China is limited. Open Garden, the publishers of the app, are reportedly working on ways to get it into the country (you can read a great interview with the CEO of Open Garden about their aspirations at PBS).

Innovation Prevails

The Internet is usually described as a bastion of information freedom (which, of course, includes hatred, bigotry, and other shameful sorts of speech), but people in many countries face limited access and highly censored sources of information. Despite governments’ ruthless censoring and access-limiting tactics, determined groups of citizens continue to find ways to share information, both with each other and the world at large.

It’s a constant game of cat-and-mouse. But, at least for now, the mice are doing surprisingly well.

What other ways have you heard of citizens using to get around censorship? Have you participated in any of these attempts to help information-deprived countries? Do you think that the tight grip of totalitarian regimes can last? Share your thoughts below!

Image credits: Brick wall Via Shutterstock, Havana (Habana) in sunset via Shutterstock, Mona Sosh via Wikimedia Commons, Computer keyboard the Chinese flag on it via Shutterstock, Wing1990hk via Wikimedia Commons.

Explore more about: Bluetooth, Internet Censorship, Mesh Networks, Wi-Fi.

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  1. Rob
    February 16, 2015 at 5:00 pm

    Great article, Dann. It's fascinating to see what people are up to when a VPN won't do the trick :)

    • Dann Albright
      February 17, 2015 at 10:24 am

      Thanks! Fortunately, most of the world can get by with a VPN or Tor. But it's cool to see that people won't be stopped if a simple solution can't work! I'm really impressed by the balloons headed into North Korea—that's an awful lot of commitment. Pretty cool stuff.

  2. Evan
    February 16, 2015 at 1:13 am

    Great article. It sounds like the US trade embargo against Cuba may be ending soon. It will be interesting to see if that improves access to the internet, or if the Cuban regime has to find another excuse for their censorship.

    • Dann Albright
      February 16, 2015 at 7:39 am

      Yeah, I was wondering about that myself. It'll also be interesting to see if we find out that there is US involvement in restricting technology entering the country; if there is, that could change quite a bit if the embargo is lifted.

      Thanks for reading!

  3. A41202813GMAIL
    February 13, 2015 at 3:35 am

    Technology Is Like Any Other Tool.

    It Can Be Used In A Constructive Manner Or In An Evil One - It Can Make You A Prisoner, Too.

    As An Example, And According To Recent News, Smart TVs Allow:

    A - Third Party People To See Or Hear You Without Your Knowledge,

    B - The Forceful Insertion Of Adds When You Are Seeing A Movie.

    The Bullring Is Getting Smaller And Smaller And The Bulls Are Becoming More Sheep Than Anything Else.


    • Dann Albright
      February 13, 2015 at 7:23 am

      Very true—technology can be used to break down walls or to build them. Which is why people are doing the sorts of things I wrote about above; they're trying to break down the barriers between people and free information.

    • A41202813GMAIL
      February 15, 2015 at 5:06 am

      @Dann Albright

      Thank You For Responding.

  4. dragonmouth
    February 12, 2015 at 11:36 pm

    "The Internet is usually described as a bastion of information freedom (which, of course, includes hatred, bigotry, and other shameful sorts of speech)"
    "Shameful sorts of speech" is the price of Freedom of Speech. Freedom of Speech means freedom for ALL kinds of speech, not just freedom for APPROVED speech. Once we say "Can't say XYZ" our Freedom of Speech is gone.

    • Dann Albright
      February 13, 2015 at 7:22 am

      That's exactly right—and being bombarded by that bullshit is the price we pay for an open, free, and useful internet. Fortunately, the benefits are totally worth the cost. Fighting against the idea of approved speech is what some of the groups in this article are doing, in fact.