Internet censorship

What internet restrictions exist, and how do people bypass them?

Victor Barreiro Jr.

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What internet restrictions exist, and how do people bypass them?
There are a number of ways for countries and companies to restrict what people can watch, read, or download. There are also potential ways around said restrictions.

MANILA, Philippines – Some countries impose harsher restrictions than others when it comes to online content, which can include the means by which people access specific types of content.

Regardless of where you live, there are just a handful of general internet restrictions in play around the world. Some of these restrictions can be bypassed by those enterprising enough to seek solutions but these may need some technical know-how to implement.

Why this matters

Countries around the world have varying degrees of restrictions to content or the accessing of websites and services that breaks give societal rules.

Using geo-blocking and other restrictions, there are also attempts to control information narratives, or outright control media entities to spread news palatable to a given government.

One other aspect behind restrictions on information or other forms of content is the blocking or shutdown of the internet in a given region or location. As the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote in a report, “government-instigated internet shutdowns largely took place in relation to five event types: mass demonstrations, military operations and coups, elections, communal violence and religious holidays, and school exams.”

Examples of content restrictions

China, for example, blocks access to western social media like Twitter and Facebook. Countries like Iran, Thailand, and the Philippines (to some extent) ban some or all pornographic websites, usually through geo-blocking, a system that prevents users from a specific geographic region from getting access to specific sites. The United States, for its part, restricts the use of torrents – specifically torrents providing copyrighted content – from being downloaded.

Russia, meanwhile, blocked access to Facebook and major foreign news outlets. It also set up a law punishing anyone spreading “fake news” about its Ukraine invasion with up to 15 years in prison.

How do internet users bypass these restrictions?

A virtual private network (VPN) is one way for users to potentially bypass content restrictions.

VPNs essentially hide a user’s internet protocol address by letting their network redirect it through specially-configured remote servers, run by VPN hosts. These can be either free to some degree or paid. Through their use, internet service providers generally cannot see which sites you’re visiting or the data you’re sending to and receiving from other sources.

For internet shutdowns, there are also a number of possible ways of bypassing them.

Mesh Networks – which use Bluetooth technology to link devices on the same network to send messages to one another – was famously used in Hong Kong to allow for communications during the 2019 to 2020 protests, as well as in Myanmar in the wake of the 2021 coup.

Private servers, meanwhile, can also be used to allow someone who has set one up to share them with trusted individuals, at least for the purposes of organization and communication.

Lastly, there are also serverless circumvention tools, which the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace mentions “either facilitate internet access during short-term disruptions or to circumvent longer-term restrictions. Programs such as Intra, GoodbyeDPI, Green Tunnel, and Geneva do not tunnel traffic or rely upon third-party servers (like VPNs), which means that governments have a much harder time blocking them.”

What risks exist for bypassing content restrictions?

Some countries, such as Iran, North Korea, and China, block or outright make it illegal to use VPNs. As such, you would be using a VPN at great personal risk.

VPN use can also be a matter of chance, as censors in more restrictive countries block VPNs once they’re found out by the government.

Lastly, in relation to technology for bypassing internet shutdowns, more technical knowledge is often needed to get these solutions to work. –

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Victor Barreiro Jr.

Victor Barreiro Jr is part of Rappler's Central Desk. An avid patron of role-playing games and science fiction and fantasy shows, he also yearns to do good in the world, and hopes his work with Rappler helps to increase the good that's out there.