Getting To Blocked Websites Not As Hard As You Think

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
June 27, 2007

A screen shot of a blocked website in Iran (RFE/RL)

June 27, 2007 (RFE/RL) --A recent report by Freedom House has detailed a "new form of censorship" that has taken hold in CIS states. A particular target of governments' efforts to control what their citizens read is the Internet -- and blocking websites has become common practice in some countries. RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher asked Bruce Schneier, chief technical officer of computer-security company BT Counterpane, about how such blocking works and what can be done to counter it.

RFE/RL: How exactly does someone -- a government official -- block a website?

Bruce Schneier: You would put rules in the firewall. If you're a country, there are a number of [Internet Service Providers (ISPs)] that service that country. And all of those ISPs will be simply told to block those URLs. So if you type in those URLs, they would not go through and you'd get nothing. It's not hard to do.

RFE/RL: Okay, I'm sitting at my computer in my flat in Dushanbe or Minsk and I can't access an article because it's been blocked. What do I do?

Schneier: Well, that's the trick. There are many things you can do. These blocks are really just for the people who aren't sophisticated enough to get around them. There are proxy servers you could go to, which basically is someone that will go to that [banned] website for you, so it doesn't look like you're going there. There are anonymizers you can use, which will hide the website you're going to so that the ISPs can't see them, and can't block them. You just type "web-anonymizer tools" -- or "web proxies" into Google and you'll find all sorts of tools to bypass any of these filters.

RFE/RL: If you search for "web proxies," you get a page of results with a list of numerical addresses to choose from, with their location in the world listed next to them. Then what?

Schneier: It depends how they work. Some of them are so easy to use: all they do is get the website they want, and there's no weird user interface. Some require a little bit of configuring, but basically they're ways to get around these firewalls.

RFE/RL: You often hear that a banned website is available as a "mirror site." What exactly does that mean?

Schneier: A mirror site is simply a site that has the same information as the site it's mirroring. A lot of times this is done for efficiency, so a [mirror] site might be a big news site that gets a lot of traffic, and it will just get overloaded. So they might have a mirror site, which has the same information, which just allows more people to access it. Now sometimes the mirror site has the same URL and you don't even know you're using it. Sometimes the mirror site has a different URL, and they're keeping that information [there] because they're afraid they might take it down, or it might get censored.

RFE/RL: Is a mirror site ever put up by a content provider who knows that their original site has been banned by a government, for example? If a website is banned in Belarus, would its creators, for instance, establish a mirror site with a Ukrainian server that isn't banned by Belarus?

Schneier: Sure, that's very common. Especially if you're a politically minded organization and you want your information out there. If you know your URL is being blocked, for whatever reason, you might establish a mirror [site] somewhere else to get around that blocking.

RFE/RL: Some of the governments that regularly censor the Internet are not what you would call very modern. So how did they figure out so quickly how to censor the Internet?

Schneier: There are easy tools you can buy for censorship. There's not a lot of figuring out; there's not a lot of fancy stuff here. These are commercial, off-the-shelf tools. Any ISP can block pieces of the Internet. They might do it for reasons of efficiency; they might not want to carry it [the entire Internet]. If the government says to its ISPs, "Block these URLs," they can block them. And it isn't hard; it isn't subtle. It's easy.

RFE/RL: Say someone wants to bypass their in-country ISP and try to gain access to blocked websites by using an ISP outside their borders. Can they go to a technical-support chat room on the Internet to ask questions and get advice on how to configure their web browser?

Schneier: Honestly, it's way easier than that. Just type "anonymizer tools" into Google and you'll get how-to's. You'll get tutorials; you'll get tools. There's no reason to go into chat rooms and talk to geeks who might speak in a language that's way too [complicated] for you. It's easy to do. It isn't even hard.

RFE/RL: You work for a company that helps people both block and unblock websites. Is the trend moving toward more Internet censorship or less?

Schneier: It's an oft-repeated phrase that the Internet treats censorship as damage, and routes around it. The odds are in favor of the information. Yes, there are a lot of attempts to block - the "Great Firewall" of China is a prime example. And some of these anonymizers are [even] blocked. And it's a constant arms race.

But really, the battle is in favor of information. Because information wants to be out there, wants to be disseminated, and blocking it is a never-ending battle. So, yes, it can be hard. Some of these tools can be blocked. I'm sure some of these tools we're talking about are illegal in some of these countries. But information will get out there.

earlier story: Interview: Bruce Schneier
later story: Interview with Kip Hawley
back to News and Interviews

Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

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