May 16, 2011 | By Seth Schoen

Documenting Tools for Beating Internet Censorship

Network censorship and surveillance is a booming business. Censorship schemes continue to fragment the Internet and new censorship proposals are constantly introduced around the world, including in liberal democracies. (Lately governments have gotten fascinated by the idea of forcing ISPs to censor particular sites from the DNS, so users can't find them even though the sites are still there.) Censors usually assume that most Internet users don't know how to bypass the censorship (or, often, that many users won't even realize the censorship is going on!).

Unfortunately, the censors are often right, at least in broad strokes: many Internet users get used to censorship and rarely or never try to bypass it. And censorship doesn't always take the form of simply blocking sites and services. But there are still major efforts to beat technical censorship by technical means, and motivated users can generally take advantage of them. Millions of people are at least occasional users of censorship circumvention services, but it's a perennial challenge to broaden this pool and give people the tools to maintain uncensored access over time.

Earlier this spring, I took part in a week-long book sprint event in Germany to create a second edition of How to Bypass Internet Censorship. The outcome of the sprint is a 240-page book, available by print-on-demand, for HTML browsing, and as a PDF or ePub download. This book gives details on a wide range of tools for a wide range of audiences, with information on the risks and limitations of particular approaches. It also suggests ways for people on uncensored or less-censored networks to help out.

There are also video interviews with me and other sprint participants discussing Internet censorship and circumvention. A book sprint is a collaborative process where a team produces or revises a book in a short, intense period, typically a single week. (This sprint was convened by FLOSS Manuals, an organization that uses book sprints and Internet collaboration to create open documentation for free and open source software and related technical topics. Their previous sprints have produced some great material in astonishingly short times.)

The manual is now being translated into several languages; if you'd like to help translate all or part of it into some language, please let FLOSS Manuals know!

One of the themes that we gave stronger emphasis in the second edition is the increasingly intimate connection between censorship and surveillance, and, conversely, between privacy and free speech. (One reason for this is that network devices that block particular words and phrases, or access to particular services, are thwarted when they can't see what people are communicating. For example, it's very easy for a firewall to block particular Wikipedia articles or Google search terms, but trickier when users use the secure version of Wikipedia or of Google Search.) This means that EFF's HTTPS Everywhere software and the Tor project, both first conceived as privacy technologies, have significant anti-censorship applications (which are described in the book). It also means that censors are increasingly interested in blocking or subverting HTTPS encryption so that they can continue keeping an eye on the substance of people's communications.

It's also great to see that a subsequent book sprint has produced a manual on computer security and was able to re-use some of our material, which is licensed under a Creative Commons license.

There's always more work to be done to document these topics clearly and completely. FLOSS Manuals has a wiki-like interface; if you have improvements to make, create an account and start editing!


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