A few years ago I wrote in Tech In Asia about how Cyber Crime laws are being established in Asia. Since then, many countries now have policy around cyber crime and accessing the web, and many are blocking certain parts of web’s content. Living in Manila, Philippines for 6 years, I’ve taken for granted a lot of the internet freedom that is still available.
This year, I started doing business in a few new places in the world that have taken me on travels to China, Korea, Russia and a number of other places. I’ve learned a lot in the past 12 months about internet accessibility, governments blocking parts of the web, and getting around it without exposing private data.
The world of privacy and accessibility is like the wild west cowboy stories you hear from America. Little to no laws restrict Internet Service Providers from collecting data on their users, public WiFi hotspots are being used to sniff out personal information and many more unbelievable stories come out every day. It’s like a TV series on Netflix.
Yes, everyone knows there are ways around being blocked from specific websites, but do we know what these methods cost? Not in money, but in personal data collection, in hacking, in fraud. I’ve learned from personal experience, that if you are in an area where censorship is real, you need to know how to get around it safely.
Different kinds of internet monitoring and blocking
It’s commonly known that many ISP (Internet Service Providers) slow internet usage down based on needs or payments from larger companies in the area. They may advertise that you’re getting 10mbps with your monthly payment, but it doesn’t mean they have to supply you with 10mbps.
Loopholes in how they word their advertisements allow them to significantly slow down your connect. Many ISPs do this based on the type of traffic you’re using (like watching a streaming service). Netflix actually has a free speed test so you can check if your ISP is giving you the speeds they are promising (spoiler alert: They’re not.)
What’s not commonly known is that your ISP is tracking each specific types of traffic your connection is sending. If you’re streaming video or downloading a torrent file, they know. And depending on where you are, that can be dangerous. In the United States, I’ve gotten notices in the past via email from my ISP that note that I’ve watched illegally obtained content.
In China or Russia, based on what law you infringe on, things can result in a much more severe penalty, and even jail time. Remember, this is based on being able to monitor what type of traffic you are sending through the ISP’s server. If you log into Facebook.com, it’s recorded, if you download a torrent, it’s recorded.
These internet traffic records can go back far, since most ISPs keep traffic data for years. In some countries, like China, entire websites are blocked from the general public and all keystrokes are recorded by the government.
Getting through the curtain safely
The Great Firewall of China certainly isn’t the only system in place to censor users based on laws or monitoring programs, but it is the biggest in Asia. Getting around it involves a certain level of risk, but one that a lot of people are willing to put up with.
If the censorship starts with keystrokes, then the only firewall you can use against being completely monitored is a VPN (Virtual Private Network). Since VPNs encrypt all of the data being requested from your computer, they’ve grown very quickly in countries that have more censorship because of their complete anonymity.
The good news is that VPNs work well for hiding the type of traffic, searches, keystrokes and everything in between from anyone tracking the data on your computer. The bad news is, not all VPNs are created equally.
VPN software is offered in many different ways and at different prices. Some are “free” and collect your data themselves so they can sell it for profit. Some require a monthly subscription payment for your complete privacy.
These are VPN basics, and I’m guessing you’re familiar with what a VPN does already, so let’s dig into how to actually use a VPN properly.
VPN safety and security
This is where things get interesting. There is a lot of data online about “bad” VPNs and “good” VPNs. There are advocate users of paid softwares, explaining that they must be supported financially to keep good servers and fast internet access. There are also people who feel that paying for a VPN is a waste of money.
Wherever you fall on the scale, it’s important to understand what happens with each category of VPNs.
- Free VPNs
- Inexpensive paid VPNs
- Full Services VPNs
To be clear, I’m classifying these categories myself here. These are what I’ve noticed after using many different services. I naturally migrated to the category that’s comfortable for me, but it might be different for you.
It all depends on these factors:
- Comfort level of sharing data
- Amount of usage needed
- Tech skills
Since I’m a power internet user, and since I travel to places that have heavy censorship, I’m happy to pay a medium to high price for a VPN ($30 – $50 US per month). This ensures that my data is not being sold, and also provides some incentive for the VPN to always keep fast servers available, and give fast service.
This also allows me to block my Internet Service Provider from slowing down my internet at different times during the day based on traffic, economics or usage. Basically, I get a blazing fast internet speed all the time. Check it out:
If you’re fine with having the VPN collect and sell your data, then a free VPN might be a better choice for you. I personally use VPN Unlimited because I get access through all of my devices with a family account.
The best list of VPNs compared side by side is on PC Magazine. The reviewer is not affiliated with any specific VPN, and I’ve visited the chart dozens of times over the past few years.
How to access blocked websites in countries that don’t allow it
First you need to choose a VPN that fits your privacy and budget needs. Typically most VPNs have an app for your phone, a Mac or a software download for a PC. Once you’ve got that downloaded the VPN you’ll want to fire up the interface and take a look at all of the different servers.
Remember, when you connect from a server from a different area in the world, you’ll get that country’s Google home page, and anything else specifically from that country during your browsing.
Some VPNs have clearly marked which servers are setup for torrent traffic. I recommend finding one of these if you are going to be downloading torrent traffic. Otherwise you may spend a lot of time guessing which server will download a torrent.
There are some websites that don’t allow visitors from unrecognizable sources (like VPN traffic). If you see this type of warning, you’ll know that you can’t access the site.
Many websites in the travel or e-commerce industry filter out bots from visiting their website. They often do this because they don’t want their web pages scraped and the data sold. If this happens, just fill out the captcha, and you’ll be able to get to the website you’re visiting.
Wherever you stand on privacy, making sure you’re not getting slow internet because of a shady ISP is reason enough to use a VPN. Since I’ve found myself in hotels, public places, coffee shops and parks using the internet, it’s become something I think about all the time.
There are a few areas where I don’t use a VPN, but whenever I’m away from home, It’s on.