Around the mountain

Published 10.11.2008 ‘Comment is Free’

An old Russian proverb says: “A clever man doesn’t climb a mountain to cross it, he will walk around it.” Today’s endeavours to circumvent internet censorship are much the same. Curious and determined netizens continually find news ways to bypass restrictions for accessing websites. As the “mountain” grows and digital rocks fall to destroy old beaten paths, alternative routes are found and pathways built. And so it goes, the never-ending journey to circumvent the forbidden.

Internet censorship is possible due to the very building blocks of networking and the world wide web. Many nations that ban access to websites from their populace (by latest count just over two dozen of them), do so by installing “blacklists” on the entry/exit point of the network – the gateway. These lists contain the names of sites (their URL) and often the IP address of the webserver they are hosted on. Requests for blacklisted sites are processed by the gateway and rejected. The event itself is logged and may later lead to retribution.

Some countries take an extra step and introduce a list of words and phrases to the blacklists. When found in a website’s name or search query, the request will be denied to pass through the gateway. A list of banned keywords researched by an Iranian blogger found the following terms disallowed to pass through his internet connection:


Software such as NetNannySmartFilter and WebSense is deployed in internet cafes, schools and universities, on networks of internet service providers and national telcos all around the world. They all function on a similar principle, as described above – and therein lies their biggest weakness.

Blacklists are effective only when a website is requested directly. If a third party is called to fetch a page’s content for us, then these lists become irrelevant. For over a decade, netizens living in censored internet environments have been using online translation and caching services to access a website indirectly. Others have relied on anonymisers, whose original intent was to conceal your identity from a website – to now hide your true destination through the censoring filters. Some, who can afford it, prefer to skip their country’s network altogether by installing a satellite internet connection. Their requests do not pass through the national gateway and are beamed out to the as yet unrestricted stratosphere.

Governments and corporations intent on implementing a robust censorship policy do not stand for these routes around their expensive (and sometimes pirated!) software. They begin to block translation websites, anonymisers and other proxy servers. Filtering software manufacturers add a “circumvention tools” category to their blacklists, to reside beside pornography and extremism.

The netizens start using RSS, traffic compression tools and chat rooms to continue the free flow of information. The governments block them too. This Tom & Jerry has and will exist for as long as there is an (IPv4 – for the geeky ones) internet and powers bent on deciding what you can and cannot know.

How about unblockable ways of circumvention? I wrote previously on Cif how several tools stand out from the rest in continually looking for new ways to fool the censors. Psiphon and Tor rely on people living in uncensored countries to donate their “unrestricted” internet connection to those living behind firewalls. Dynaweb, a project developed originally for the Falun Gong in China, continues to function by concealing the location of its proxies – making it more difficult to block. I foresee (with some insider’s knoweldge), that the near future will bring great strides for the “around the mountain” users out there.

Global Network Initiative or not, countries and corporations will create new and better ways of denying our rights to access information. After all, censorship is just another way to be afraid of the truth, whether ugly or not. But on the bright side, if the Samizdat folk pulled it off, so can we.

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