Bypassing content filters: How to see the web they don't want you to see
The web is supposed to be open, but behind the scenes, content filters are often busy controlling what you see. The filters could be at your school or workplace, blocking sites such as the time-sucking YouTube from being accessed. It could be a media website that streams music and movies only to users located in specific countries. An ISP or a restrictive government could also impose content filters. International travelers are often innocent victims of these filters, when they find they can't access their digital content from wherever they're currently located.
There are ways to bypass these restrictions, but be warned: Network administrators don't want you to dodge their data blockades and won't be happy if they catch you doing it. Use these tools at your own risk and responsibility.
A VPN can change your apparent location
When you connect to a virtual private network (VPN), your computer creates a secure, encrypted tunnel to that network over the Internet. All of your computer’s network traffic is sent over the VPN. When you connect to a website, you connect through the VPN. The VPN alters how you are "seen" online: If you’re in the United Kingdom and connect to a VPN in California, websites—even one that restricts itself to U.S. residents only—will see you as connecting from California. VPNs are used to get around the great firewall of China, and they can bypass other content filters in the same way.
VPNs do have some downsides. Connecting to websites through a VPN adds some overhead. Even with a fast VPN, there’s some increased latency simply because the connection is going through a third party. Also, all programs on your computer will be using the VPN when you’re connected. So if you do use a VPN, you should enable it only when necessary.
To connect to a VPN in Windows, press the Windows key, type VPN, and click Set up a virtual private network (VPN) connection. (In Windows 8, select the Settings filter after searching for VPN.) You can connect and disconnect from VPNs from the network icon in the system tray—the same way you connect and disconnect from Wi-Fi networks.
Before you set up a VPN, you’ll need select one. TunnelBear is a convenient, easy-to-use VPN that does all the configuration for you. This service offers 500MB free every month, so it’s particularly useful if you only use the VPN occasionally. However, you’ll go through this data very quickly if you’re streaming videos or music through the VPN.
If you want unlimited VPN access for free, give proXPN a try. ProXPN offers free VPN access without a maximum traffic limit, but free users won’t receive the maximum speed. To get unlimited, unthrottled VPN access, you’ll need to pay for one of the many VPN solutions available online—such as the paid version of TunnelBear or proXPN.
PCWorld's guide to how and why to use a VPN has even more nitty-gritty details.
DNS servers dodge region-blocking
If you just want access to region-blocked (also called 'geo-blocked') websites such as Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video, Pandora, Spotify, or even websites that block American users (such as BBC's iPlayer), your best option is a DNS-based filter-dodging service.
These services work almost like magic. After you change your DNS server to the service’s DNS address, it will handle all the dirty work in the background. When you connect to Netflix, Netflix will see you as a US resident. When you connect to BBC iPlayer, BBC will see you as a UK resident. You can connect to both websites at the same time, and your connection will always appear to be coming from the correct country.
Best of all, you’ll receive full streaming video speeds on these websites. Your computer connects directly to the service itself—only small parts of the traffic are tunneled through the DNS service’s proxy servers. You won't need to manage a VPN connection or deal with VPN latency when streaming media.
Beyond mere media streaming, DNS services such as OpenDNS or Google's Public DNS can also help you skirt, say ISPs that are redirecting search traffic in order to shove more ads in your face. Note that these options reroute all of your Internet traffic, however.
While OpenDNS and Google Public DNS are free for consumer use, most DNS services that allow you to watch streaming media services from non-supported countries charge access fees. If you’re willing to pay, UnoTelly’s UnoDNS is only $5 a month and will give you access to a wider variety of geo-blocked websites, including Netflix. Unblock Us offers a similar service.
Each service will walk you through changing the DNS address on your network. You’ll want to do this on your router, if possible—this ensures all devices on your network, including your Xbox and iPad, will transparently use the service. However, you can also change the DNS address for your computer alone.
To do so, navigate to Control Panel > View network status and tasks > [Your network connection’s name] > Properties > Internet Protocol Version 4 > Properties > Use the following DNS server addresses.
To easily and quickly change your computer’s DNS servers, try the free DNS Jumper application.
Proxies aren’t as secure as a VPN, nor are they as convenient as a new DNS server. However, they do offer some benefits. You can use a web-based proxy to easily bypass a workplace content filter without changing any settings on your computer. You could also set a browser to use a proxy server and use that browser only when accessing blocked websites. If you used multiple browsers, you could have one browser using a proxy server and one that doesn’t. It’s not an all-or-nothing solution like a VPN.
The aptly named Hide My Ass is a popular web-based proxy. Just visit the website, plug in a web address, and you’ll access it via the free proxy. This should get you past a basic content filter—unless the administrator's blocking the proxy itself, in which case you’ll want to try another proxy. What’s the catch? The service embeds advertising in a frame at the top of the website.
Hide My Ass also offers a list of free proxies, which you can configure your web browser to use. Note that each proxy may go down eventually, so you may need to change them frequently. Also remember proxies and all the man-in-the-middle options discussed in this article can see your traffic, so don't do any banking or access other sensitive information unless the connection is encrypted and protected from prying eyes.
Follow these steps to configure a proxy in your browser:
- Internet Explorer : Gear menu > Internet Options > Connections > LAN settings > Use a proxy server
- Firefox : Firefox menu > Options > Advanced > Network > Connection Settings > Manual proxy configuration
- Chrome : Menu > Settings > Show advanced settings > Change proxy settings > LAN Settings > Use a proxy server
Note that Internet Explorer and Chrome use the same Windows-wide proxy configuration. Firefox can be configured to use a Firefox-only proxy.
Media services - free vs. paid
If you’re accessing geo-blocked media services from outside the United States, you’ll often run into problems when signing up for paid services. Free services, such as Hulu, Pandora, BBC iPlayer, or the one-month free trial of Amazon Prime Instant Video, won’t give you any problems, but you may run into issues if you want to subscribe to paid services like Netflix or Beats Music.
Many services will only allow you to sign up with a U.S. billing address—not a problem if you’re an American merely traveling outside the US. If you’re not American, you may have to jump through some hoops—or find a very kind friend in the US who will let you use their payment information.
For some services it's less of a problem. For example, if you live in a country where Netflix is available but has a much smaller library of content—such as Canada or the UK—you can sign up for the normal Netflix account in your country. When you connect to Netflix with a VPN or special DNS server, it will allow you to access the entire US library even if you don’t have a US billing address.
The ideal web has no borders, no oceans, and no barriers. You can go anywhere and talk to anyone. The real web has content blocks. You can get around them, whether for arguable reasons such as accessing your geo-blocked digital content while on vacation, or for reasons we can't officially encourage. Just remember that because these are workarounds, your mileage will vary, and you use them at your own risk.