Virtual private networks (VPNs) are one of the most common online security tools, used to hide a user’s internet protocol (IP) address or geographical location. Most VPNs create a tunnelled and encrypted connection that will use a separate IP address generated by the VPN server. This makes it difficult for internet service providers (ISPs) to identify a user, and subsequently block their access.
During a targeted throttling or partial shutdown, a block of IP addresses in a particular location or country can be slowed down or crippled by the government. Using VPNs such as Express VPN, Tunnelbear or Outline VPN allows users to gain access to the internet during these partial shutdowns.
Mandla Tshuma, a journalist based in Zimbabwe, noted that he used a VPN to access the internet during a social media shutdown in January this year. “The person you were communicating with or source needed to have a VPN installed in their phone as well,” he said. “If not, then communication was still limited.”
Doing research became difficult for journalists like Tshuma, as most websites and online publications could not be accessed. VPNs therefore became the go-to tools to access basic internet resources that would allow them to do the basics.
However, VPNs are not necessarily the perfect tool for every occasion. Sean Ndlovu, a digital security specialist, noted that there have been instances where people discovered that the VPNs they downloaded where being run by governments.
“When using circumvention tools, ensure that they are trusted and verified by the community,” he said, which is often easier said than done.
There are other alternative tools that can be used to evade partial internet shutdowns. Some of these are web browsers and operating systems, while others combine VPN features with other technologies.
Below is a list of alternative tools that can be used to help journalists access the internet, and continue to do their work.
In the event that specific social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter are blocked, a smart DNS (Domain Name Server) can disguise your location, allowing you access to restricted websites. The smart DNS reroutes a request through proxy servers that are located in other countries where the websites are supported.
One main advantage of a smart DNS is that it only needs to reroute information about your location through a different network, instead of routing all your web traffic — a feature common with VPNs. This means that internet speeds when using a smart DNS are usually higher.
One disadvantage is that a smart DNS doesn’t always encrypt your information like a VPN, which puts your information and privacy at risk. A smart DNS also doesn’t change your IP address. While this might be good for network speed, anyone with your network details can track your activity.
An example of a smart DNS is Getflix, but there are also other options.
Lantern is open-source software that circumvents internet censorship by using peer-to-peer connections as a source of internet connectivity when servers are crippled. The software, which claims to be faster than a VPN, activates when users try to access a blocked website. It routes users through Lantern servers, or the servers of volunteers..
Lantern, which is U.S.-based, became popular in countries such as China that have internet censorship and restrictions.
Psiphon is a circumvention system that uses a combination of secure communication and obfuscation technologies, which include VPN, Secure Shell (SSH) and HTTP Proxy technology. This means that if a VPN is not working, it’s first evasion technique, it will use other technologies to evade censorship. One of the main attractions of Psiphon is its proxy servers that provide additional layers of privacy. This has made it popular, especially in high-censorship countries like China, Turkey and Iran.
Tor not only protects people's identity online but also allows them to evade social media and internet blockages. Instead of connecting directly to a website, it bounces around between multiple nodes, or computers, on the Tor network, thus making your communication difficult to trace.
During a targeted throttling or partial shutdown, your location will be unknown, and you will still have access to the internet and be able to avoid the censorship. It also keeps your communication relatively secure from hackers or spies — but it’s not perfect. Users should still use caution when relying on Tor.
Computer and mobile operating systems also allow individuals to circumvent the internet using various features. For instance, Tails ensures that incoming and outgoing connections are forced to go through Tor. Tails also encrypts files and email messages, and won’t leave any traces on the computer you’re using — unless you want it to. However, Tor has its limitations, such as being slow and unsuitable for downloading and streaming media content, but Tails users have no choice but to go through Tor.
Most VPNs also offer mobile applications that enable anonymity and evading censorship. There are also mobile-only applications such as Orbot that redirects all traffic through the Tor network. Orfox, another browser for android phones, acts similarly to Orbot, redirecting traffic through Tor. Peer networking, like that from Lantern, is also used in FireChat, an off-the-grid messaging app that allowed users to communicate using Bluetooth or wireless networks during blackouts in Iran, Iraq and Hong Kong.
An important aspect to note about security and privacy tools is that there is no magic tool that will do everything perfectly. The best solution will depend on the context and conditions of a specific environment.
“It will largely depend on the region or country where the internet shutdown is taking place,” said Berhan Taye from Access Now. “The internet infrastructure varies from country to country, as does the technical mechanisms used to implement the partial internet shutdown.”