The existing censorship of websites in several parts of the world is hampering the internet in its bid to democratize content and communication channels. In China alone, over 2600 websites have been blocked as a knee-jerk response to the current dynamics of its citizens in which technology serves as a fuel. However, while there are various reasons as to why certain websites are being banned in a particular country, there is still hope for those who are striving to break loose from restrictions in the name of information (and perhaps, entertainment).
Reasons Why Sites are Being Blocked
The internet is a free-for-all entity that subsists through the collective efforts of content providers and citizens. However, the moment it becomes problematic or resembles a threat to the security, one can predict its demise in the hands of those who have the power over its use – a company or the government itself. Maybe they are not actually killing it, but they are going to take control of what individuals can and cannot access from then on. One thing is sure, though: when this happens, you can never use the internet the way you are supposed to.
Such is the case with internet censorship that currently takes effect in more than 20 countries worldwide. It sets limits on users in varying degrees, which includes restricting access to certain websites that tend to affect or influence public sentiment, as well as those that oppose the information known to many. There are at least five reasons why they do it:
1. Copyright infringement
This is especially true in the United Kingdom. Several websites have issues pertaining to copyrights and thus require banning from the list of accessible websites to prevent them from cashing in on the original content.
2. Political content
Most of China’s concerns regarding the use of internet is due to the contents of the websites that they deem political in nature. China blocked the site of The New York Times possibly due to its propagandist views and fearless attacks on the Chinese government. Other websites such as YouTube, BlogSpot, Facebook and Twitter are also among those banned in China and in a few other countries.
According to some sources, it could be due to the fact that these sites can easily empower the citizens to go against the government and that such democratic content will cause quite a stir, which every self-respecting authority tries to avoid.
3. Obscene material
Porn sites such as Xhamster and RedTube are inaccessible in mainland China. The government believes that they influence the morality of the citizens and that viewing such sites will cause them to do immoral acts and become lazy. Some countries also discourage access to such sites. Explicit content as well as those suggesting violence are also being kept in check.
4. Privacy issues
Some companies also limit the access to websites due to privacy concerns, which may include trade secrets getting leaked to the public and unauthorized access to sensitive information. Blocking these sites from the outsiders has become a must for many companies that have been relying on the internet for publicity and marketing campaigns.
5. Defamatory content
Some websites must have been built to incur the ire of the internet users through derogatory writings and images. Such sites can be under the control of the government or a particular group.
6. Geographical restrictions
These restrictions are intended to limit the audience of a certain website due to existing laws pertaining to the use of free information. Here, an individual based in China (or any other country) may not be able to view websites originating from the US or other foreign country. In some cases, the website redirects to its local counterpart, although most of the time, it simply prompts an error message. Sites that allow streaming of TV shows from a foreign country are often subjected to these restrictions.
And the list goes on. Most of the time, the blocking of the sites is left to the responsibility of the internet service providers following the court orders to do so. There are even organizations that propose the inclusion of such court orders in the message saying that a site is being blocked due to legal reasons.
Such prompts aim to let the users know why such blocking exists. It is different from the usual Error 403 Forbidden, which simply suggests that a website refuses access to certain users. One of the proposed error messages for court-ordered blocked sites is “451 Unavailable”.
Amidst the current internet censorship in several parts of the globe, there are still ways to get through the web checkpoints and get past the geographical restrictions. One of them is the use of VPN and proxy servers.
Unblock with VPN
VPN stands for “Virtual Private Network”. Its mechanism can be summed up like this: VPN is a network of computers that are interconnected over the public network such as the internet. It allows the computer or an internet-capable device to exchange data across shared network (e.g. the internet) as if it was actually connected to a private network; hence, the term “virtual”. It benefits from the security of an actual private network, which means that an individual may browse a website completely undetected by the censorship police.
On the other hand, a proxy server provides a point-to-point link between a client and the internet. However, instead of the client’s IP address, it is the proxy server that is visible to the public and specifically, to the authorities. It bypasses internet censorship by taking up an IP address located in the same country of the preferred websites or just about any country that does not restrict access to them. Unlike VPN, proxies can handle simultaneous requests from many and different individuals across the internet.
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Pros and Cons of Using a VPN
While the primary aim of VPN is to create a tunnel through which data between a client and a host server will pass through, there are a couple of advantages that an individual may get from its use. Among them are as follows:
Secure internet surfing – You will never have to worry about your IP address getting detected by the authorities and thus end up in an arrest simply because of an innocuous internet activity (browsing, watching live-streaming shows or downloading files). A VPN can bypass blocked websites through a dedicated connection that also cloaks the IP address of the user’s computer by default.
Because you are in a private network, the IP address that will be shown is that of the VPN server and not yours; hence, you may be from Iran, but your VPN says that you’re in California, and this will then allow you to browse websites such as YouTube which may originally be banned in your area.
Data encryption – If what you are doing online may compromise your security, then choosing to install a VPN can save you. Most VPNs have high encryption levels, ranging from 128-bit to 2048-bit.
Perhaps, the only downside of using VPN is the cost of availing the service. Although there are VPN providers that do not charge a fee for its use, most paid VPNs tend to be more secure and deliver more value. Often, the cost starts at below $10 a month, which is still cheap if you are going to consider its advantages. However, some VPN providers may also be keeping logs of an individual’s internet activity, which they may relay to the authorities if pressured to do so. Additionally, VPN may not seem convenient to some people as it often involves downloading and installing the VPN client, as well as configuring the computer unit.
Unblock with Proxies: Types of Proxy
Proxy servers may sound similar to VPN, but they’re actually different from each other. Although they both tend to circumvent web restrictions, there are several concepts that are unique to each other. Proxy servers typically have two kinds of protocols with which they communicate with the shared network (internet): the HTTP and SOCKS.
The HTTP type of proxy server interprets and handles traffic that begins with http://. HTTP requests are easily handled by servers, which means that it could be a lot of faster than other proxies or even the VPN itself. This makes the HTTP proxy servers ideal for web surfing as the requests sent to and from the client’s server are promptly interpreted. One of its advantages is that it is cheap (and sometimes even free-of-charge). You will only need to configure your web browser to be able to use it.
On the other hand, there is the SOCKS protocol which, although it doesn’t interpret data, is considerably slower due to the amount of traffic it handles. However, its saving grace is that it can take up on a wide variety of traffic such as POP3, FTP and torrent files—great for those who typically do more than just browse the internet.
Public vs. Private Proxy Servers
Public proxy servers have mushroomed around the internet as a response to the growing number of users who want to bypass website restrictions and evade detection of the government. One can access a proxy server by simply looking up in a search engine and choosing from a list of IP addresses and port numbers.
Unfortunately, using public proxies could mean that you have to bear with its connection instability; they tend to go on and off-line a lot. However, if you are in the market for free servers, then this is the best way to start. You just have to make sure that you can trust these anonymous servers as they may put a risk to your security.
Private proxy servers, on the other hand, are those hidden from the public. They often come with a price, although they offer premium services aside from providing users with reliable IP addresses. Some are specifically applicable for certain internet activities such as file and torrent downloading. They may even include customized programs that are pre-configured to work on your computer.
Using Web Proxies
These proxies typically connect you to a public HTTP server, which will enable you to browse the internet anonymously without having to download or install a program and configure your browser settings. They are also available for free. It is by far the most common way of circumventing internet censorship.
However, there are two disadvantages in using web proxies. For one, they may come with several advertisements that you probably won’t need. Also, its security tends to collapse when dealing with complicated Flash content and scripts. There are also times when the IP addresses are so widely known that they end up getting blocked by websites. Still, web proxies ensure an easy-to-use system that can help in bypassing blocked websites.
Other Ways to Unblock Websites
There are also those websites that are being blocked at the network level. This could mean that your parents or employer want to regulate your internet activity to ensure productivity in the office setting and safety at home (i.e. adult content restricted). For such reasons, you may try to add or remove the “s” in the URL box that goes with the “http://”. HTTPS means that the site is being accessed in a secured connection.
This is not to say, however, that editing the URL could be the solution. You may also try other ways such as changing the internet settings on your browser or using a translation service. A translator serves in the same way as a free proxy service in that they deliver the data to you without actually going directly to the website.
Simply ask the translator to translate the content in English and once the page has been loaded, you can browse the site like you normally would. Two such useful tools are the Microsoft Translator and Google Translate.