We’ve been running a series of guides discussing various ways of defeating censorship – particularly US DNS censorship. Previously, our guides covered methods to defeat censorship including command prompt, using a DNS web tool, using a hosts file and, for those sites that merely had their domains seized, using the MAFIAAFire redirector. One question one might ask is, “What if the ISP merely censors the server IP address of a censored website?”. Well, there’s various ways of circumventing such methods as well – one way is to use a well-known application called Tor.
What would happen if something like the PROTECT IP act goes further and goes beyond messing with a public DNS list? What if they (corporations and governments) compel ISPs to block access to certain IP addresses? Such a method of censorship is actually quite easy to circumvent. There’s a number of methods that can bypass something like this and this guide will show you how by using a network called Tor.
Tor is sometimes referred to as the union router. While some are content with connecting to one proxy, TOR connects you through multiple proxies to help ensure anonymity. While nothing is 100% secure, using Tor is still a very good way of staying anonymous. The side-benefit to this is that it can get around something like a simple website block imposed by an ISP. Sure, it’s entirely possible an end-node will connect through an ISP that might try and censor certain websites, but as soon as you find yourself connected to an exit node outside of the country, it’s game over for an ISP trying to simply block a certain IP address.
So, a method we used to get Tor working is using FireFox. While installing and using Tor is a little more complex than installing something like MAFIAAFire, it will offer a few benefits including a level of anonymity and security that you wouldn’t get by browsing the internet with nothing more than a firewall and a browser.
Step 1: Download Tor
It’s more than downloading a simple plug-in for FireFox. So, first thing we want is the Tor Browser bundle which can be downloaded on the Tor download website. If you’re viewing the website and don’t know what to download, here’s a screenshot of the website (I’ve highlighted the link that would get the software we are after)
Step 2: Extract the Files
As the webpage says, this doesn’t really even require installation. Once you’ve downloaded the package, double-click on the file to run the self-extracting archive.
In the pop-up screen, click on “Run”:
In the next window, click on the button with the three dots.
You’ll see a file tree of the files on your computer. Find a convenient location so you know where to turn on Tor in the future. You get a button that will allow you to create a new folder if you have to, but select the folder you want that new folder to be in before you use that button. When you’ve selected the folder you want the contents of this package to be in, click on “OK”
Now, you’ll have the previous window with new content in the text area. This denotes where on the system you’ll be extracting your files to. Simple click on the “Extract” button.
Step 3: Open Tor Browser
Now that you have the Tor browser bundle, you can turn it on and connect to the Tor network. When you browse to the directory you extracted the files to, you should see something like the following:
Simply double-click on “Start Tor Browser”. It might take a moment for it to connect, but once it does, you’ll have access to the Tor network. You’ll also have access to this handy window (below) which we will use later (note: if activating this opens a pop-up internet browser window, don’t close it because, for some reason, it closes the Vidalia window as well. Simply minimize it)
Step 4: Download and Install the TorButton FireFox Plug-in
We’re almost there. We just need one last component – a FireFox plug-in. Simply go to the Torbutton page of the Tor website. What we want is in one of the first lines of the site. Click on the link that is present in the line that says, “Install Stable: Click to install from this website.”
Follow the prompts to install the plug-in. When you get the following pop-up, click the restart button to restart the browser:
Step 5: Test the Tor Settings
If you have installed both the browser bundle and the TorButton successfully, you should see a new button in your browser next to the URL:
Now, we want to test to make sure everything installed fine. So, for that, we need to right click on the button and click on “Preferences…”
In the new window (typically, the default settings are fine), click on “Test Settings”.
You will most likely see this window pop up (click on OK):
Wait a few moments. It will test what you have. Chances are good that if you have followed this guide all the way up to this point, the test will be successful. The main thing is that you left that “Vidalia Control Panel” window open (the window that you get when you opened up that “Start Tor Browser executable” file from earlier) so that you have Tor functioning in the background. If the test was successful, you’ll get the following screen:
After you click on “OK”, just click on “OK in the preferences screen to get out of it.
To start using Tor, right click on the TorButton next to the URL in your browser and click on “Toggle Tor Status” and wait for the red “X” on the onion to go away and the onion to turn green. Congratulations! You are now browsing with Tor!
Step 6: Taking Tor Out for a Spin
Technically not necessary, but a nice visual demonstration of what an affect browsing with Tor can do. If you have Tor running, open a new tab and type in “http://www.google.com” in your browser (the “.com” part of the URL is the important part) and hit enter. You might be redirected to the same old Google home page as seen in your country.
Now, open up/click on the Vidalia window and click on “Use a New Identity”
Now, go back to your Google window. Wait a second for Tor to do it’s thing. Re-type in “http://www.google.com” (again, the important part is the “.com” part). When the page loads, you should see that the Google webpage has changed to display what Google looks like in a completely different country. Pretty cool, eh? Google is simply detecting what country you are from. When you change to a different proxy or identity, Google assumes you are from a different country based on your IP address and displays their webpage accordingly. That’s how others will very likely see you if they attempt to trace you – they will only get whatever the exit node (the last server that is accessing the internet) you happen to be using instead of you.
Some Final Thoughts
There is one unavoidable drawback to using Tor. It will very likely slow down your connection. Pages will take an extra moment to load because your webpage requests are being routed through multiple servers instead of you accessing the page directly. That will, unfortunately, be a fact of life on the Tor network. How much slower will probably depend on how much the Tor network improves itself.
Log-in sessions and certain things like viewing YouTube clips might be more difficult. This is simply a security thing implemented in to Tor to avoid any chance of a user being traced. So, you might find yourself logging in more frequently as well.
All-in-all, this is a very good way of defeating any DNS censorship the US (or any other country for that matter) might throw at you. If Tor winds up not being a one tool solution, I have a hard time believing that it can’t be a key tool to defeating DNS censorship.
If you have any further questions, feel free to consult the Tor Tor FAQ or comment below.
Further Reading: Official Tor homepage