How to Bypass Internet Censorship

Get Creative

If your Internet Service Provider (ISP) censors access to certain Web sites or services, you can use the tools described in the other chapters of this book, or you can think about creative ways to access unfettered information. Here are some examples.

Use alternative ISPs

Sometimes filtering regulations are not applied uniformly and consistently by all ISPs. Big providers with large numbers of subscribers, as well as state-owned telecommunications companies, may be subject to more scrutiny and more extensive law enforcement than small Internet start-ups. In 2002 the German government passed a law regulating the Internet that was applicable to ISPs based in only one of its states. Users therefore were able to circumvent these regulations by subscribing to a nationwide ISP with offices in other regions of the country. Similarly, a German regulation imposed in 2010 that would affect only ISPs with over 10,000 subscribers (in order to prevent a leak of the blacklist) was easily overcome by subscribing to small, local ISPs. During the 2011 Egyptian revolution, there has been speculation that Noor DSL was the last ISP to comply with the Internet shutdown order because of its relatively small market participation (8%) and the prominence of its customers, such as the Egyptian stock exchange, the National Bank of Egypt and Coca-Cola.

Alternative ISPs can also be found abroad, and some companies even waive the subscription fee for users who live in a country where there is severe political unrest. During the revolts of 2011 in Libya and Egypt, several citizens were able to publicize the political and social situations in their respective countries by hooking up their dial-up modems to ISPs abroad, or by using alternative communications methods, such as satellite, packet radio, and unfiltered connectivity provided by multinational companies or embassies.

Mobile networks

Mobile networks are increasingly popular means of disseminating and accessing uncensored information, partly because of their high penetration rates in countries where the costs of owning a computer or a private Internet connection are prohibitive. Because many mobile carriers are not ISPs, their networks may not be affected by regulations in exactly the same way. However, these networks are usually easier to monitor and are frequently subject to extensive surveillance.

Activists in several countries have used their phones and free, open-source software such as FrontlineSMS ( to manage short message service (SMS) campaigns and bridge SMS technology with microblogging services, such as Twitter. A computer running FrontlineSMS and connected to the Internet can serve as a platform for others to post information to the Internet through their cell (mobile) phones.

Mobile networks can also be used with alternative devices. Amazon's Kindle 3G e-book reader, for example, comes with free international mobile roaming, which allows free access to Wikipedia through the mobile network in more than 100 countries.

Don't use the Internet

Sometimes access to the Internet is completely restricted, and activists are forced to use alternative means to distribute and access uncensored information. In 1989, well before the Internet was widespread, some students from the University of Michigan purchased a fax machine to send daily summaries of international media to universities, government entities, hospitals, and major businesses in China to provide an alternative to the government's reports about the events at Tiananmen Square.

If your access to the Internet is restricted, consider the possibility of conducting peer-to-peer exchanges through alternative means. IrDA (Infrared) and Bluetooth are available in most modern mobile phones and can be used to transfer data over short distances. Other projects, such as "The Pirate Box" (, use Wi-Fi and free, open source software to create mobile file-sharing devices. In countries with low Internet penetration, such as Cuba, USB flash drives have garnered widespread use by people who want to distribute uncensored information. Other technologies that were used by activists during the 2011 political unrest in Libya and Egypt include fax, speak2tweet (a platform launched by Google and Twitter that enables landline users to tweet via voicemail) and SMS.

Use either very old or very new technology

Sometimes a censor's filtering and monitoring techniques are only applied to current standard Internet protocols and services, so consider using very old or very recent technology that may not be blocked or monitored. Before the advent of instant messaging (IM) software (Windows Live Messenger, AIM, etc.) group communication was performed using Internet Relay Chat (IRC), a protocol that allows real-time Internet text messaging. Although less popular than its successors, IRC still exists and is still widely used by a big community of Internet users. A bulletin board system (BBS) is a computer running software that allows users to connect, upload and download software as well as other data, read news, and exchange messages with other users. Originally users would call a telephone number using their modems to access these systems, but by the early 1990s some bulletin board systems also allowed access over Internet interactive text protocols, such as Telnet and, later, SSH.

In this regard, new technologies enjoy many of the the same benefits as old technologies, as they are used by limited numbers of users and therefore are less subject to censorship. The new Internet protocol IPv6, for example, is already deployed over some ISPs in some countries, and usually it is not filtered.

Alternative uses for Web services

Many Internet users whose connections are censored have started using Web services in ways different than those for which they were initially designed. For example, users have employed the chat capabilities of some video games to discuss sensitive matters that would otherwise be detected in common chat rooms. Another technique is to share a single e-mail account and save the conversation in the "Drafts" folder to avoid sending any e-mails over the Internet.

Online backup services such as and have been used by activists to distribute and share documents, as well as other kinds of data.

Services that are intended for translation, caching, or formatting have been used as simple proxies to bypass Internet censorship. Prominent examples are Google Translator, Google Cache, and However, there are many creative applications, such as (takes screenshots of Web sites), (creates a PDF from a Web site), (creates a PNG image from a URL), and (creates easy-to-read documents for e-book readers, such as Nook and Kindle).

Any communication channel could be a circumvention channel

If you have any kind of communication channel with a co-operative person or computer outside of the censorship you're experiencing, you should be able to turn it into a means of circumventing censorship. As mentioned above, people have already used video game chat to bypass censorship because censors often didn't think to monitor or censor it or to block access to popular video games. In games that allow players to create sophisticated in-world objects, people have discussed the idea of creating in-world computers, TV screens, or other devices that players could use to get uncensored access to blocked resources.

People have also suggested the idea of disguising information within social networking site profiles. For example, one person could put the address of a Web site he wanted to access in a disguised form inside his social networking site profile. A friend with uncensored access would then create an image of the contents of that site as a graphics file and post that in a different profile. This process could be automated by software so that it happens quickly and automatically, rather than requiring human beings to do the work.

With the help of computer programming, even a channel that simply allows a small amount of numeric or textual information to flow back and forth can be converted into a communications channel for a Web proxy. (When a channel hides the existence of some kind of communications entirely, it's called a covert channel.) For example, programmers have created IP-over-DNS or HTTP-over-DNS proxy applications to circumvent firewalls using the Domain Name System (DNS). An example is the iodine software at You can also read documentation for similar software at and With these applications, a request to access something is disguised as a request to look up the addresses of a large number of unrelated sites. The content of the information requested is then disguised as the content of the replies to these requests. Many firewalls are not configured to block this kind of communication, because the DNS system was never intended to be used to carry end-user communications rather than basic directory information about sites' locations.

Many clever applications that use covert channels for circumvention are possible, and this is an area of ongoing research and discussion. To be useful, these require a dedicated server elsewhere, and the software at both ends must be set up by technically sophisticated users.