How To Get Around Local Internet Censorship When Traveling Abroad

September 21, 2010 by  
Security, Tech

Most countries around the world censor the Internet to a degree, which can make for a frustrating surprise when you open your laptop lid in another country. (For example YouTube has been blocked in Turkey for the past two years.) As inconvenient and questionable as Internet censorship is, it’s generally ineffective against a few free pieces of software.

internet censorship

A Quick Look At How (Most) Censorship Works

Let’s focus on government censorship, although there are other kinds like Google omitting search results based on the country you’re in. Most work by blocking your direct access to a website – point A to point B. (An oversimplification but you get the idea.) Governments don’t have chips planted in your hard drive letting China know you’re in Beijing, they simply block access to specific websites on their end. That’s where proxies come in.

  • A proxy is basically a computer in an uncensored part of the world between you and the blocked site. Your computer connects to the proxy and the proxy connects to the website.

The government in between doesn’t know the difference (since access to the proxy isn’t blocked) and you surf the web freely without noticing the proxy. Think of the proxy as the friend you send to talk to your girlfriend when she’s not speaking to you.

internet censorship around the world4 Free Proxies To Beat The Man

Proxies aren’t the end all solution to getting around local government censorship but they are a good place to start and often all you’ll need.

  • Hotspot Shield [download]- Probably the easiest proxy to use although very ad-heavy. Download, install, activate and you’ll be surfing the Web as though you’re located in the United States.
  • Free VPN – A good Hotspot Shield alternative with a cleaner interface; Free VPN is Windows-only.
  • UltraVPN – Not as smooth or sleek as Free VPN but it works on Mac. (You’ll need to sign up for a free account to use it.)
  • Foxy Proxy [download] – This Firefox plugin gives you access to individually blocked sites as opposed to sending your entire connection over the proxy connection.

airline ticketsKeep in mind that proxies aren’t encrypted or secured connections – you’ll still need to practice good computer security habits and lock down your laptop. Also, since you’re rerouting online traffic through the proxy your overall Internet connection will be slower.

Another great use for regional proxies is to get cheaper airfare and tickets. Prices are often lower for American consumers so by making your computer seem like it’s in the US you can book the same flights for less overseas.

Another thing about proxies is that governments have a habit of catching on to them from time to time making them unavailable, albeit not usually for long.

invisible lego manStaying Invisible Online

These programs keep your web surfing and location anonymous, which is especially useful in places where your browsing may be monitored (and get you in trouble).

  • Tor [download] – One of the most misunderstood pieces of privacy software, Tor makes it nearly impossible for someone to trace where you are and what you’re surfing online. It can also help you get around regional censorship, although it’s blocked in several countries.
  • JonDo – Not the most intuitive program to set up, JonDo hides your traffic and is specifically configured to circumvent many forms of regional censorship. JonDo integrates completely with Firefox and Safari.
  • Turn Off File Sharing – So that you’re not inadvertently sharing sensitive or personal files.

Another good idea is to secure your basic web connections, not only protection against snooping government eyes, but also against malicious hackers in the most dangerous Internet countries. Luckily, with a click, the Firefox plugin HTTPS Everywhere [download] will do that for you.

There Are Still More Ways To Beat The Censors

For longer trips you can consider setting up your own virtual private network or buying access to a ready-made one like Hamachi. You might not think much about what’s blocked at your destination before a vacation but do consider the taboo online topics. Whether it’s democracy, pornography, or kittens sleeping on puppies, save any locally questionable browsing for freer Internets…or just cover your tracks very well.

[photos by: graphiclunarkid (Internet censorship), Dan4th (plane and train ticket sign), Chaotic Good01 (invisible Lego man)]

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  1. Sherry Ott says:

    Great info – and love your easy to understand explanation! Your tech posts are always my favorite!

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  2. Terrific article! Again, something I don’t think enough about. I’ve bookmarked this and the article about Tor.

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  3. Melissa says:

    Great site! I love this article. I will keep this in mind on my next travels.

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  4. this is great advice especially when you find your website or blog is blocked because of regional constrictions

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  5. louie says:

    Why would US based airlines sell cheaper tickets those based on US soil comparing those who are not?

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  6. Gloria says:

    Great article. Thanks! I’ve saved it!

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  7. Federico says:

    I wish I had known this when I was in Vietnam! For some reason I still ignore y travel blog is censored in Vietnam, and I could not update for the full three weeks I was there.Only once I entered Cambodia was I able to populate it again.

    Great tools for future reference…page bookmarked

    Federico

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    • Anil P. says:

      Your blog was blocked?

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      • Federico says:

        Sorry for the super late response Anil…yep, it was blocked all the way. No matter where in Vietnam did I try to check my site it would not load, a message saying it was not available. As soon as I got into Cambodia it was not an issue any more. I was very surprised too…

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        • Anil P. says:

          Weird – some of the travel blogs I follow are blocked here in Turkey – I wonder how those sites are determined by the censor. Good thing you were able to get back to it right across the border :)

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          • Anil P. says:

            I’m not sure, perhaps specific keywords trigger the ban or the sites are (relatively) new and blocked by default since the filter isn’t familiar with them.

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          • Federico says:

            I don’t get it…most (if not all) of the travel blogs out there have nothing or little to be incriminated about….I wonder why this happens!?

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      • Greg says:

        I was in Vietnam about ten months ago and found that I could use Facebook in Saigon but not in Hanoi. My Blogger blog was not blocked. This post is timely and helpful as I am heading in to Turkey and Syria in December. Blogger is blocked in Syria, but I was wondering if Posterous might be a workaround? Thanks for the post, Anil.

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        • Anil P. says:

          I’m not sure but wouldn’t rely on it since it’s not designed to be a proxy. I’d recommend installing one of the listed proxies to be sure.

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  8. Frequently fly to Vietnam and lite.facebook.com worked well until last month in Vietnam I found out it somehow being blocked too. Wonder if 3rd party application such as TweetDeck works to get around in accessing facebook in Vietnam. Anyone ever try it? Will definitely try to download those proxies too. Appreciate for any other info, as I’ll be in Vietnam again in November

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    • Anil P. says:

      It depends on how they are implementing the censor but it is likely Tweetdeck won’t work. Of course to test, you could always use a proxy in Vietnam before you go – let me know if you’d like to try – otherwise you should be good with the other proxies.

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  9. Emily says:

    Awesome post–I knew that some countries blocked certain sites (Skype and Hulu are the two I’ve heard the most complaints about) but I had no idea how to get around it. I also didn’t know about those other services in the section about staying invisible. I suck at technology, so this was really helpful!!!

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    • Anil P. says:

      Thanks Emily :) Btw, Hulu isn’t typically blocked by censors but Hulu itself doesn’t allow streaming to anyone outside of the US. HotSpot Shield works well for that – let me know if you have any questions setting any of this up!

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  10. Justin says:

    Might I suggest a minor correction:
    When you said “Keep in mind that VPNs aren’t encrypted or secured connections”, I imagine you intended to say *Proxies*. VPNs are encrypted, encapsulated connections.

    That said — they are still not always 100% effective. While on a RTW trip this summer, I used VyprVPN which is another paid VPN service. Seemed to work really well in Vietnam but it was difficult to get through sometimes when trying to connect from the U.A.E. (although with persistence I was able to do so). However, I imagine this difference in connectivity has more to do with the competence of the people blocking the traffic than the quality of the VPN service! ;)

    If you don’t mind paying a little something for the protection, I would also recommend VPNs over simple proxies for the added layer of protection at WiFi hotspots and other unsecured networks. As Anil rightly points out, security is a process or, put another way, a collection of small-but-meaningful habits that will hopefully reduce your risk and maximize your access to information — wherever you are!

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    • Anil P. says:

      Hi Justin, thanks for catching the typo, I’ve corrected it and the recommendation for VyprVPN…and I agree with this statement:

      “However, I imagine this difference in connectivity has more to do with the competence of the people blocking the traffic than the quality of the VPN service!”

      Luckily for as many blocks as there are; a similar number (if not more) workarounds exist :)

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  11. In China, Twitter, HootSuite, Facebook, YouTube, Hulu, etc were all blocked. Hotspot Shield did not work, nor did the personal VPN I had set up back home, because they are both PPTP VPN’s and China has discovered a way to block them as well. The only thing that works is an SSL VPN, and I ended up buying an annual subscription to WiTopia for $59. Well worth the money to be able to get to the sites I need the most. I wrote about the specifics on my post “Getting around the Great Firewall in China” at http://holeinthedonut.com/2010/09/06/internet-social-media-blocked-china.

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    • Anil P. says:

      A remarkable piece of technology; the Great Firewall is extremely adaptive and manned by a large number of engineers. Unfortunately this ingenuity is wasted on severely censoring the Internet.

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  12. Laura says:

    Vietnam blocked facebook! I could use lite.facebook.com about 50% of the time, but some cities it didn’t work. I did a Google search and came across proxy info but it was a bit over my head :)

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    • Anil P. says:

      Let me know if you need help with any of these. By far the easiest one to use is Hotspot Shield.

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    • JoAnna says:

      To get around Facebook in Vietnam, I used Hootsuite. That’s probably something you’d have to set up before traveling though, and I don’t know if Hootsuite is blocked anywhere. You can’t get the full Facebook experience on it, but you are able to at least add updates to your feed.

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