If the Government Banned Twitter, What Would You Do?
You may have heard that the Turkish government banned Twitter, or tried to anyway. Despite the ban, there was almost no drop off in Twitter usage in Turkey. #TwitterisblockedinTurkey and #TurkeyBlockedTwitter became trending topics worldwide only a few hours after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced his intention to “wipe out” the microblogging website. According a report from Twitturk, which records the statistics of Turkish Twitter users, over half a million tweets were posted in just 10 hours, despite the ban. That number would mark no sharp fall from the average number of tweets posted in the country, which is around 1.8 million per day.
I’ll give you a simple step by step guide on how to beat this particular block towards the end of the article, but there is some background information that is really helpful if you understand it.
The reason people are still tweeting in Turkey is because for all the omnipotent rhetoric coming from governments, they actually aren’t all that in control of the Internet. At least not yet. Short of actually going to the physical location where the computers hosting the website are, and physically disconnecting them from the network or otherwise disabling them, there really isn’t any way for a government to block a website, and even that doesn’t work so well.
A great example is The Pirate Bay. A world wide cooperative campaign by governments all over the planet has been trying to shut down The Pirate Bay for over a decade. The Pirate Bay, if you’re not already aware, is the world’s most popular torrent site, it is the 93rd most popular website on Earth according to Alexa.com. It facilitates file sharing among users, using the peer to peer file sharing protocol known as bit torrent. It is notoriously popular for illegally downloading copyrighted music, movies, software, and now even 3D printer designs, including those for 3D printed weapons. At one point the operators of the site were sent to prison, fined the equivalent of over $3 million, and still, I download the Walking Dead from them every Sunday immediately after it airs on TV.
And that’s just on the normal every day open Internet. The Silk Road operated as a hidden website on the “deep web” or “dark net” for over two years, notoriously selling drugs, fake ID’s, and at one point, weapons. It was only error on the part of the site’s operator that finally lead the FBI to the server’s actual location where it was ultimately seized. Even after that happened, new markets of a similar nature have popped up like dandelions, and if they learn from Ulbricht’s mistakes, they may be around for decades to come.
What the Turkish government did was not nearly as heavy handed or sophisticated. They did the same thing the Libyan, and other governments have done when they want to silence dissent, which is order local Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block the DNS name of the website.
When you go to twitter.com or ChristopherCantwell.com or any other website, that “name.com” address is a DNS name, or domain name. DNS stands for Domain Name System. The Domain Name System simply converts that name, into a numeric ID known as an Internet Protocol address, herein, IP address.
You and I tend to prefer names and words, while computers tend to prefer numbers. The Domain Name System facilitates the translation between the two. Imagine you had to remember the phone number for all the websites you visit (if you’re as old as me, you might not have to imagine this). It’s certainly not impossible, but it’s surely a lot easier to remember Facebook.com than 220.127.116.11.
It also allows more than one website to operate on the same IP address under certain conditions. Larger websites like Facebook, you can simply put 18.104.22.168 into your browsers address bar and beat the DNS block. Smaller websites like this one are often on a shared hosting account, and the address would be more like http://22.214.171.124/~dwilien1/christophercantwell/. In that example, it’s the IP address, followed by my account name, followed by the folder I store the files for this website in.
But I digress. I’m veering off a little bit into the finer points of web hosting here. The point is, the twitter ban that happened in Turkey and Libya and other places, was done by blocking names. You can use much of the internet without names, it just gets a bit more complicated, requiring some note taking and memorization.
Luckily, you don’t even have to do that.
When you put Twitter.com into your web browser’s address bar, your web browser asks your operating system to give it an IP address for that name. Your operating system has DNS server addresses (usually automatically) set up in its networking configuration, your operating system asks those DNS servers for the IP address of the domain name, and relays the information back to your web browser to make the connection.
Normally your DNS servers are provided automatically by your ISP, and this is the weak point where the government is intercepting the communication, at the ISP’s DNS servers. The government is telling the ISP “Block this website, or we will fine/imprison/kill you”. There are a few different things the ISP can try to do to block the website, but the easiest way to comply with the order is to alter the DNS information in their server.
Normally the request would look something like this
After the block, it might look more like this
*** router.belkin can’t find twitter.com: Non-existent domain
Or it would route to some kind of warning message on a different IP address.
The way around this is to bypass the ISP’s DNS servers, and luckily, that’s pretty easy to do for now.
If Your Government Banned Twitter, You Need To Change Your DNS Servers in Windows
- Click the networking icon in the bottom right corner of the screen, and choose “Open Network and Sharing Center”
- In the Network and Sharing Center, click “Change adapter settings”
- Select the adapter you are using, right click it, and choose properties. (Are you wired or wireless?)
- Select “Internet Protocol Version 4 IPV4”, and then click “Properties”
- Chances are, your IP address and DNS servers are selected automatically, if they have been entered manually already, you will want to write them down so you can change them later. Assuming they are selected automatically, select “Use the following DNS server addresses” and in the Preferred DNS server field type “126.96.36.199” without the quotes, and in the alternate field type “188.8.131.52”. (I’ll explain those numbers momentarily). Click OK
- Click OK again
- You’re Done! Now try to visit the blocked website!
Those numbers I told you to enter, belong to Level 3, and Google, respectively. If the US tries to ban twitter, they could become compromised as well. So you may want to keep an up to date list of open DNS servers from around the world handy.
UPDATE 2:08pm EST 03/22/2104 I just heard the Turkish government has blocked access to the DNS servers at 184.108.40.206 and 220.127.116.11 (The Google DNS servers). You will want to make sure to keep several handy from different countries, in case this happens in your country.
Lucky for us, Public-DNS.tk keeps just such a list constantly updated. Scroll down a bit, pick any country in the world, and they will list free, open, publicly available DNS servers from that country.
If this trick doesn’t work, there may be a more sophisticated blocking technique in use. In which case, you’ll want to check out my previous article, on How to Hide on the Internet. That will explain how to use VPN and Tor on your PC.
If you’re using an Android phone or Tablet, check out my previous article Anarchist Android App Audit: Security, for Tor and VPN usage, as well as other helpful security tips.