It wasn‘t so long ago that the world cheered the Venezuelan people for coming up with an ingenious method of protest: throwing mangoes with written demands at president Nicolás Maduro. Those times are over. In a country rife with food shortages, throwing mangoes away wouldn‘t make much sense. As the economic situation has gradually gotten more severe, the government has managed to stay in power through a combination of unconstitutional power-plays, repression of dissenting political opinions, and increasing censorship. The latest news to come out of Caracas? According to a report by AccessNow, the largest (state-owned) ISP in Venezuela has blocked access to the Tor network.
The timeline leaves no doubt about the intentions behind the Tor ban. It comes only a few months after a new cycle of blocks against local news outlets. Some were banned for informing the public on how to get dollars on the black market, others for criticizing the government. Tor has understandably become an important tool in the country, particularly after the latest bans. It has been one of the easiest ways for Venezuelans to get past the censorship and read some real journalism. Although the government has done a good job of restricting access to the network, all is not lost. There remain ways of getting into Tor. We‘ll look at what they are as well as some alternatives!
What is Tor and what have they done to it?
Tor, short for “The Onion Router”, is a browser and free online network, whose purpose is to preserve the user’s anonymity. The network consists of volunteer routers or relays – anyone can become one, technically speaking, although it is good to have a lot of bandwidth. Here’s how it works: instead of your computer contacting a server, the traffic is sent on a journey through several (or several hundred) of these relays. The traffic is encrypted – levels of encryption are added or removed at each relay (depending on which way the traffic is going). This makes it very difficult for observers to know what you are doing online. While it’s not an ideal method and has some weaknesses, the level of security it provides is enough for most regular users.
Apart from the anonymity, Tor also serves another function – bypassing geo-blocking measures or censorship efforts. Both of these functions are relevant to the people of Venezuela, which is why the block is a serious blow to freedom of speech, and, consequently, meaningful change.
The ISP (read: the government) has not only blocked direct access to the Tor network by blocking publicly known relays. They have also managed to block some of the “bridges” of Tor. These “bridges” are simply relays that are not publicized and thus more difficult to outright block. The block is surprising because it requires a degree of sophistication the Venezuelan government had been deemed incapable of. Unfortunately, this seems like a harbinger of things to come – the South American country is taking strides towards internet hermit states like China, Iran, and others.
How can you access censored content in Venezuela?
As we have already mentioned, the Venezuelan state has been unable to fully block Tor. They simply cannot block all of Tor’s “bridges” – they don’t know all of them. According to reports, currently, you can still access the network via the “meek-azure” bridge. However, in the event that this one gets locked as well, you should get in touch with the Tor team ([email protected]) and ask for a different bridge.
Of course, there is also another route you can go – VPN. Virtual Private Networks (good ones) can carry out the exact same function Tor can. Really good ones can even do it better! As always, there are positives and negatives to using VPN over Tor. We’ll pick them apart step by step.
The first thing to note is Tor’s main benefit over VPN. Tor is free, whereas most half-decent VPN services will cost you anywhere from a few to a few dozen dollars. This is obviously problematic in Present-day Venezuela, where people are suffering an economic crisis and a shortage of international currency.
That being said, there’s no way around the fact that VPN can be the most reliable way of getting past government censorship. For one thing, Venezuela blocks Tor, but they can’t block some VPNs in the same way. ExpressVPN and NordVPN, for example, offer their users obfuscated (or “stealth”) servers. These cannot be blocked even by such cutting-edge censorship frameworks as the one in China. Others offer users security protocols that mask their traffic as HTTPS traffic (fooling blocking efforts in the process). Finally, a good VPN service will normally be faster. This is very important in a country known for some of the worst connection speeds in the world.
Which VPN service is best for Venezuela?
Here are a few VPN services we reckon could work for the people of Venezuela:
- NordVPN. This is the most secure VPN of them all – great encryption, no leaks, impervious to blocking efforts. It’s the cheapest good VPN and you can pay for it in a variety of ways, from card to various crypto options.
- VyprVPN. Extremely fast and one of the best for use in restricted countries. This one’s not worth getting unless you buy the premium package, which includes the Chameleon security protocol.
- ProtonVPN. Very secure and one of the very few to offer a free version that has no bandwidth or data transfer limits.
Now that Venezuela is blocking Tor, you may find yourself looking at free VPN services – beware! Many of these tools do not have your best interest at heart and will track your activities. Furthermore, they are often not great at performing the basic functions you need of them, like disguising your identity. Make sure you read up on the product you want to buy!