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Disclaimer: Please talk to a lawyer in your country before taking any of the actions described in this article. Especially before visiting countries with rampant censorship, like many in the Middle East and Asia, please verify this information with an expert. The last thing I want to do is to land you in jail!
Governments around the world have not been afraid to control the internet, whether it’s censoring topics or cutting off access altogether. China infamously has the “Great Fire Wall,” which is not a static thing, but a long list of evolving internet control techniques that many other countries have adopted, like North Korea.
And, where there is political unrest, governments have been known to cut-off internet access altogether, like in Turkey in 2017. Yet, some governments apply a softer control over the internet, deciding that certain words, topics, or opinions should not be shared.
If the American government was censoring the internet, would you know what to do? Or, what if you, or your family members, want to visit a country where there is some level of government control over the internet? Your strategy will depend on what kind of control the government is exerting. Here is what you need to know before censorship happens, or gets worse.
1. Shutdowns that are Localized and Temporary
In 2011, transit officials blocked cellphone signals (including internet access) in a San Francisco train station, as an attempt to quell protesters’ planned demonstrations in the train stations. Instead of using technology to achieve the three-hour disruption, transit officials simply asked wireless providers to turn off their signal in the stations and the providers complied.
There is also localized jamming technology that achieves the same effect without involving wireless providers. For example, one Maryland prison has used the technology to attempt to stop inmates from using phones they smuggled into the prison. Individual Americans already own jammers too, though they are illegal.
The solution to temporary localized internet control is to leave the area where a jammer is being used and to use alternative forms of communication while you’re leaving, like walkie talkies. Here is our top recommendation for walkie talkies! If the internet has been jammed near your home or bug-out location, you’ll have to skip down to part five: internet alternatives.
2. Long-term, Widespread Control via Choke-Points
Countries like China control their citizen’s internet access in part by monitoring and restricting traffic flow through choke points. These choke points are usually owned by Internet Service Providers (ISPs), but in China’s case, some of them are owned by the state. A government, through the ISPs, can stop data flow through choke points, or can monitor and censor it.
While there are three choke-points in China, other nations, like Canada, Germany, and the Netherlands have too many choke-points for the government to control them, at least not easily. The researchers who looked into this at Harvard didn’t analyze the United States’ internet infrastructure, so we can’t be sure of its choke points. However, there is one good estimate arguing the US would have several.
The solution to this type of censorship is hefty but promising. A mesh network could allow you to connect three ways: to your neighbors, the internet, or a second version of the internet, all without relying on ISPs and choke-points.
If you’re attached to a small network, your connection can’t be snooped on, even by the NSA, unless they have physically compromised the network’s hardware. Although, let’s be honest, if a big enough mesh network were developed, you can be sure the NSA would bother to get in on it. But, to shut down the network, the government would have to shut down every single node.
The problem with mesh networks is three-fold too. Mesh networks require you and whoever you want to communicate with to invest in some hardware. That hardware can be expensive to maintain. And, mesh networks can be really slow without the use of centralized hubs.
Still, working mesh networks have been developed to great success in New York City, Spain, and Cuba. One kind of mesh network, as an app, has been used in Hong Kong to actively circumvent the government.
Mesh networks may not always be able to provide the data-heavy instant communication we have become accustomed to, but they can still provide a valuable avenue around government censorship, a way to send simple emergency info to someone, or a way to access Wikipedia offline. If you’re interested in mesh nets, Hyperboria is a good place to start.
3. Keyword Censorship
There are a billion people in China, and about 600 million of them have access to the internet. While the Chinese are restricted from accessing much of the internet from outside of their borders, they can access websites and traffic data much more easily in their own country. And, it would be impossible for humans alone to monitor this traffic, there’s just too much. In one attempt to restrict this traffic, the Chinese government decided upon a series of keywords to block automatically.
- Codes: The editor of China Digital Times, Xiao Qiang, explained to NPR that the date of the infamous Tiananmen Square massacre, June 4th, 1989, is blocked by the censors. So, people have begun to say “May 35” to reference it. For now, the Chinese government tolerates such codes. Should the censors ever decide that saying “May 35” is not acceptable, people will develop an alternative way of referencing the same event. While bureaucracy is slow, language use over the internet is notoriously quick. Staying ahead of the censors is risky, but do-able.
What does that mean for you?
If you end up in a country where censors may be tracking keywords, you can come up with euphemisms to express the censored idea. And, if you believe internet censorship may be upcoming for a topic you talk about, you can agree upon code words ahead of time with those you care about. Think about it like the codes you have to tell your spouse you’re in trouble without giving it away, or codes to tell your spouse it really is you at the door. It works best if you decide it ahead of time.
- Encryption: It’s likely that your best use of encryption is to hide your browser history, the content of your email or your messages over other services (website owners can use encryption to protect their sites too). Plenty of VPN services, which we mention below, will encrypt your traffic for you. But for files, you should invest in some encryption software. PC Mag’s Best Encryption Software of 2018 is a great starting point to find out what kind is right for you.
4. Specific Website Blocking
Intense internet control, as in China, is fairly difficult to get around. But what if you live in a country with softer internet censorship, like Britain? As hard as it is for Americans to imagine, the British police openly investigate social media posts and attempt to block whole websites.
According to Open Rights Group, this is usually under the guise of preventing copyright infringement, terrorism, and the sharing of certain types of pornography. Perfectly reasonable sites are often caught up in these censorship attempts, in a phenomenon called “over-blocking.” There are many privacy tools you can use to overcome these restrictions.
- VPNs: If you live in Britain and you find a website is blocked, you could use a VPN to change your “internet address” to another country where the website isn’t blocked. You can learn more about VPNs in Eric’s post on the matter. Here I’ll just repeat his warning in the article: free VPN services are rarely secure.
- Other Privacy Strategies: I’m far from an internet privacy specialist, but Michael Bazzell is. He wrote, “Hiding from the Internet: Eliminating Personal Online Information.” The latest edition, published in 2018, explains how you can get your personal information removed from public databases, and then take new steps to keep your identity anonymous when you’re online. There’s also information any prepper can appreciate, like how to purchase a home anonymously, use free tools to protect your computer, and curtail the social media platforms you use. If you’re reading this and it’s not 2018, you should look for an updated version of this book or one like it. You have to keep up-to-date when you’re dealing with the internet.
5. Internet Alternatives
You can use new technology to evade control of the internet, or you can use old technology. It’s a good bet that censorship activities would focus on the internet before they would consider older forms of communication. And, the impermanent nature of radio makes it an excellent choice too.
Alternatives For Communication
- Shortwave radio: This is a valuable form of communication that can’t be controlled the same way the internet can. Learn the basics of short-wave radio for preppers and our guide to the Best MURS Radios.
- HAM: You need a license for HAM radio, but it’s a great form of worldwide two-way communication to turn to when you don’t have internet. Learn the basis of HAM radio.
- Letters: While slow and flammable, a government focused on controlling the internet probably won’t have many resources to look into your physical mail. Combine this with a code if you feel you need the extra security.
Alternatives For Information
It’s not hard to guess who you might want to talk to, but it can be hard to guess what information the government could decide to censor. If you live in a country that attempts to block specific websites, you never know what could, especially unintentionally, trigger a censor. Still, I have some strategies for you.
- Download Wikipedia: Wikipedia is a good general source of information. Because it is so general Wikipedia is your best bet to secure information a government might unexpectedly decide to censor. It could help in China, because an offline copy of Wikipedia would have a record of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Wikipedia is relatively small by modern data storage standards, but you will need software that will let you access the information offline, like Kiwix.
- Print Other Web Sources: If you know what information you might need, printing it off makes sense. Many of you have pointed out that Backdoor Survival’s print option is missing, but you don’t have to let that stop you. Highlight the Backdoor Survival article you want (or any other article you want), right click on the highlighted section and copy it. Paste it into your word processor, like Microsoft Word. You can even adjust the article as you like, changing the font to be smaller or larger, getting rid of images to save on ink, or making collections of similar articles to store and print together.
- Old Books: If the USSR and China are any examples, governments like to censor history, especially to hide their wrongdoings or to deny that there was once a different governmental system in place. Old history books can combat this. The same goes for ideas. Although it’s hard to predict which thoughts and concepts will be targeted if you have a healthy supply of old books you may be able to spread knowledge amidst online censorship.
Author Bio: Ellysa Chenery can be found writing all over the web. She loves adapting traditional skills for new situations, whether in the wilderness, garden, or homestead. Her favorite smell is carrots fresh from the dirt.
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