While the news that Turkey has banned mainstream websites such as Twitter and Youtube may be a bit shocking, filtering or even wholesale blockage of the internet is fairly common on the world stage.
Cuba and North Korea utilize tightly regulated internal networks, with little to zero access to outside influences, and even heavily developed countries such as China and South Korea still maintain strict control over what information is visible over the web.
Yet to an outside observer, how these blocks are implemented has not always clear – Turkey’s twitter ban has been internationally labeled as “ineffective,” and mockingly disregarded by journalists and politicians alike.
But in what way are these precautions bypassed? And why can such bypass methods not be used in more heavily regulated countries, where they could be put to far more meaningful use than tweeting leaks and satirical video clips?
When considering a country-level internet filter, it’s important to note that not all internet blockages are created equal. While simple scaling may make the difference between an effective filter and an insecure one, the most effective filters use fundamentally more sophisticated technology to censor and track users.
Different countries use different tools to block access, which differ from the common web filters seen in libraries or schools across the US.
A multitude of circumvention methods are employed by techn-savvy users who utilize special networks and knowledge of the blocking system to sidestep obstacles. Such users create further pressure to implement more effective blocking systems, leading to a constant race for the most secure and impenetrable censorship software.
One of the simplest and most common internet censorship tools is the IP block.
When a computer connects to the internet, it accesses sites through unique IP addresses that designate the correct location to communicate with. IP filters installed at intermediary locations recognize and terminate these connections, effectively blocking all connectivity from the filtered region to the hosts of the websites whose IPs have been censored.
This form of filtering is widespread amidst low-grade, non-monitoring filters like those seen in public WiFi around the US.
However, it is easily bypassed by using a “proxy” computer – a competent user may connect to a specialized server computer in another location or, even another country, that does not have a blocked IP. The user can then use this computer remotely to access the internet freely.
If the internet filter is a metaphorical locked door, this method is analogous to using the next door over, and then climbing out the back window to enter the room from an unforeseen angle.
To prevent this easily-implemented bypass, many nations have implemented even more sophisticated methods of blocking access in addition to monitoring and recording potential perpetrators who attempt to view restricted material.
Special filters record the number of controversial keywords included in the code of a website and block those “too incendiary” without the need for a dedicated IP blockade.
Attempts at encryption are targeted and excluded from the network. No information passed along government lines goes unrecorded.
While I was abroad visiting China, it was easy for me to hop on the NinjaProxy website and get around most of the “Golden Wall” blockades. Even then, I still avoided visiting sites with overly incendiary content, confident that it would still be detected and tracked.
Encouraging this “self censorship” through the perception of being monitored is often a cornerstone of massive government filters, for which actual monitoring of every user would be impractical. Instead, the risk of being caught may be enough to discourage users from accessing censored content.
Yet in countries such as North Korea, even this is not enough. These self-maintained systems cannot truthfully be called “filters” at all, since the entire nation only has access to an internally maintained network with only a few closely monitored connections to the outside world.
There is no bypassing in such a system, nor is there anonymity – every connected computer is too tightly controlled and regulated to attempt a circumvention without being instantly detected and tracked.
Fortunately, such extreme measures are as repulsive to the leaders of most countries as they are to the populace.
An impenetrable system is more than just software and often requires more time, manpower, surveillance, and funding than a politician can justify.
Ultimately, though a country like Turkey will take the first steps toward blocking restricted sites, they may be unwilling to approach the full suppression of free speech and oppressive monitoring practiced by countries experienced in censorship methodology.
Are social media websites really worth the costs it takes to effectively block them? The international community and populace will continue to scoff at primitive filters that can be sidestepped by anyone with a proxy and encryption software.
But this is only the very bottom of the barrel – a more malicious government censorship program is only ever as far away as those in charge are willing to go.
Once implemented, you can still scoff all you like; just be sure that a government censor somewhere is ready to scoff right back.