More and more Internet connections are being filtered, from public Wi-Fi and workplace connection filtering to ISP and country-level censorship. However, there are still ways to get around this filtering and view blocked websites.
Some of these methods may be restricted by harsh filtering. For example, the Great Firewall of China is now interfering with outgoing VPN connections, although VPNs were left alone for years.
Simplest Solution: Use a VPN
Connect to a virtual private network and all traffic coming from your computer will be redirected over that VPN. In other words, if you’re connected to a VPN located in Iceland, all your network traffic will be redirected to Iceland before it emerges. Replies will be send to the server in Iceland, which will forward them back to you. This all happens over an encrypted connection. All your ISP, network operator, or even your country’s government can see is that you’re making an encrypted VPN connection and sending data over the connection. If they want to block you, they’d have to block VPN connections.
Power Users: Use Hide My Ass! VPN
Hide My Ass! might have a funny name, but they’ve got almost 900 servers in 200 different countries, their servers connect quickly, and their client has loads of options for configuration. They have apps for iPhone, Android, OS X, and Windows, and in our testing they work well.
Casual Users or Beginners: Use TunnelBear
We’ve done a lot of testing to find a client suitable for beginners, and we’ve found that TunnelBear has easy, dead-simple setup – you just click the dial in the application; you don’t even need to configure the VPN in Windows. They have a free version and a paid upgrade that’s definitely worth the price. We don’t usually recommend paid solutions, but in this case, it’s something that we use and are happy to recommend.
VPNs are also commonly used for remotely connecting to work networks, so VPNs are generally not blocked. However, China has recently started interfering with VPNs. Free VPNs are available, but a solid, fast VPN will cost you money — either to rent from a VPN provider or to pay for hosting so you can set up your own VPN.
This method is the least likely to work, but it’s worth covering here. Some Internet service providers have implemented filtering by changing their DNS servers to redirect requests for the blocked websites to another website. Some places that filter their Internet connections may use something like the web filtering solution offered by OpenDNS.
Assuming the filtering is just at the DNS level and requests to other DNS servers aren’t being blocked, you can get around the filtering by setting a custom DNS server on your device. This overrides and bypasses the default DNS server controlled by your Internet service provider or the organization running the network. Use something like Google Public DNS and you’ll know no DNS-level filtering is taking place.
Tor allows you to browse anonymously. It does this by routing your web browsing over and encrypted network before it emerges at an endpoint, which will likely be in an uncensored, unfiltered location. You shouldn’t use Tor to access sensitive, unencrypted data, but Tor will let you access blocked websites on any connection.
Tor’s developers are fighting a long, unending battle with regimes that attempt to block it, such as Iran. Tor may work even if standard VPNs, proxies, and SSH tunnels won’t.
Note that Tor does have a big downside — it’s much, much slower than typical web browsing. It will allow you to access blocked websites, but it shouldn’t be used for all your day-to-day browsing unless you’re a dissident living in Iran or China.
Blocked sites can also be accessed using a standard proxy. System-wide (or browser-wide) proxies generally function similarly to VPNs, but they’re not as reliable — for example, they only work with certain programs, not every program on your computer. If you want to pay for a service and send all your traffic over it, you’re better off with a VPN.
However, if you want to quickly access a blocked website, you can try using a web-based proxy. There are many available, including the widely known Hide My Ass. Plug a website’s address into the box on the website and you can access it via the proxy.
This won’t always work, as the proxy itself may be blocked. It’s also not the best experience, as the proxy itself will add advertisements to the page — they have to pay for their free service somehow. However, if you want to quickly access a single blocked site without installing anything or changing any system settings, this may work for you.
SSH tunnels can work similarly to VPNs for securely tunneling your traffic. If you’re looking to pay for such a service, you’ll probably want to get a VPN. However, if you’re a geek, you may already have an SSH server you can access remotely.
If you do have an SSH server you can access, you can connect to it remotely and set up tunneling, redirecting all your web browsing traffic over the secure connection. This is helpful to encrypt your browsing traffic so it can’t be snooped on on public WI-Fi networks, and it will also bypass any filtering on the local network. You’ll have the same web browsing experience you would have if you were sitting at the SSH server’s location, although it will be a little slower.
Blocked websites are only becoming more common, with governments like the UK’s pushing ISPs to start filtering the Internet connections they provide to subscribers by default and laws like SOPA in the US demonstrating the kind of harsh blocking governments want to put into place.
If you ever stumble across a blocked website, these tips should help you understand how to get around the block.
Image Credit: Nick Carter on Flickr