The Internet is Shackled

Blocked and filtered, monitored and restricted – this is the reality of the internet today.  Ever clicked on a particularly funny looking video to be greeted by the message – ’we’re sorry that video is not available in your area’.  Perhaps you’ve tried to watch the latest episode of that TV programme while on holiday.  Maybe you’ve simply tried to place a bet while travelling using your online betting account.  There’s a very good chance that none of these will work simply because of your physical location.

When did the internet change like this? It was once open to all, it didn’t matter if you were in a cyber cafe in Karachi, an Airport in Harare or sitting in a Starbucks in London – we all saw the same online, we were all equal.  But that’s not the case any more – commercial interests, government filters and restrictive licensing meant that whatever you see online is highly dependent on where you live.  Much of it is promoted as improving the user experience, while that’s partly true the majority is simply to boost profits or to control what we see online.

Mostly it’s geo-targeting that’s to blame, a website will check which country your IP address is from before deciding on what you can see.  If you don’t believe me check out any media site in a country apart from yours – Non US residents try and watch something on ABC or Hulu, or if you’re in  the US go and try to watch something on the BBC iPlayer website.  Put simply it won’t work simply because the internet is now layered in Tiers and not all open to all.   Media sites like these are a great example, virtually every single one works perfectly when you’re in a specific location (usually the domestic market).  However as soon as you travel, then they’ll stop working.  These huge international barriers being placed on something where location really shouldn’t matter.


We’ve mentioned some benefits and they’re definitely are a few.  Search  engines for example will tailor your results to match your location.  So if you search for electricians you’ll get results located in the same area as you.  Search for film times and you’ll see them matched to cinemas in your local area too.  All this is useful in most cases but the blocks and filters are much more pervasive than these.

It doesn’t seem right that your physical location should be so important on a global communications network like the internet.   Some people are seriously disadvantaged by their location with access to many important internet sites like PayPal and eBay restricted based on their location.

As always though there are work arounds, mainly in the various technologies that can be used to bypass these blocks. The vast majority of these sites determine your location using the IP address of your computer.  Now although you can’t change this, you can hide it to a certain extent. By connecting through an intermediary server you can hide your real location and use that of the server.   These are called proxy servers which you can gain access to through many different locations.   You can use a BBC Iplayer proxy or a VPN to access Hulu and Pandora and it doesn’t really matter where you are – read this.  In fact for internet surfers in most developed countries, a subscription to one of these services is becoming a necessity.

Many services offer access to servers across the world meaning whenever you get blocked you can simply select the appropriate server and you’re back in business. But of course this has meant that slowly the internet is becoming accessible to some and inaccessible to others.  If you can afford one of these subscriptions you’ll be fine but others will have to live with the handicaps.  It’s not really how the internet used to be and I suspect it’s not how most of us wanted it to be!

Accessing Facebook – Is it a Basic Human Right?

Much has been spoken over what rights we have to access the internet, however it is becoming a very real issue. Whether you can log onto your Facebook account might sound a rather flippant issue with regards human rights but to many people it really is that important.

A couple of years ago I was living in Turkey, a modern, secular country with a fairly relaxed attitudes to most things. But politics change and in Turkey there is a growing power of religious parties, who have a much less relaxed view towards the internet than most of the population. There have been a series of court cases and lots of lobbying for a huge number of websites to be blocked inside the country. For example the atheist author Richard Dawkin’s website was blocked for some time (indeed I think it still is) because he published a review ridiculing a book on creationism that stated the world was a few thousand years old.

Now whatever your politics or religion, the reason so many people are keen on a secular government is that no one religion can define what you can or can’t do based on their own beliefs. The idea that a religious leader has decided that no one in Turkey should be able to access a book review is quite clearly ridiculous. But the issue can become even more complicated when you look at media sites like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. These sites are incredibly popular because they are pretty much open to everyone, people are allowed to speak their mind and say what they like. That will obviously lead to some people being offended, but can you block an entire site like this?

Facebook has been blocked in Turkey for a few weeks, I believe it was due to someone publishing some of the Muslim cartoons that caused such controversy. Fortunately it’s not blocked now, but the black list of sites blocked in Turkey grows every year – the majority due to pressures from fundamentalists in positions of power.  Indeed any country which has a dubious human rights record or a reputation for suppressing free speech will always look to control the internet and social media sites specifically.

You don’t need it at the moment, but you never know when it might change so here’s a Facebook proxy method which costs nothing and works virtually anywhere –

These tools do get blocked and in somewhere like China you’ll find a lot of them don’t work or are detected.  Fortunately the technology is improving on both sides, some of the latest hi tech proxies are virtually undetectable and some VPNs even pass through the Great Firewall of China too.

The problem is that the most popular sites on the internet usually are havens for free speech. You might not agree with much of what is said on them, but that’s only natural we don’t always hold the same views. Censorship of these sort of sites, will only lead further down the dark road of filtering and control that countries like China and Iran take part in.  Sure there is a solution to accessing these sites and maintaining your anonymity through proxies and VPNs but not everyone will use these.

Further Reading

Why You Should Be Hiding Your Identity Online

Throughout the year I do a certain number of presentations in local schools, it’s organised by a charity who’s primary goals is to educate kids about how to be safe online.  The presentation is carefully compiled to try and educate without scaring kids away from using technology.  It’s very well done and even me with my limited presentation skills find it works really well with the right age groups.  In my experience, kids seems to relate to the stories especially when it’s delivered personally rather than through some adverts which have previously been tried on UK television and I suspect across the world.

One of the issues I see with children who attend this presentation is the amount of personal information they put online.  Whether on blogs, web sites or social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.  As part of the visit we encourage to discuss these tools and how people use them.  I am frequently stunned to find how many Facebook friends some people have – there are loads of kids who have well over a thousand friends listed on their account – makes my sixty seem rather sad!

Hiding Your Identity Online

Why You Need to Hide Your Identity Online

Although most of the children can use these sites very easily – very few have any concept about the security settings.  They are also blissfully unaware that whatever they upload to these sites is likely to be available for many years to come.  There are many issues around this – in both short term and long term. For example, only last week a I did a google search on a management consultant who approached me looking for work and introductions.  My search revealed she had written a blog and abandoned it some years ago detailing all sorts of personal problems and financial difficulties – not a good web image.

The problem is that most people are unaware that they have a digital identity and it’s building up every time you use the internet.  Everything from messages, emails and the web sites you visit are recorded and logged somewhere. So combined with all the information you upload on purpose, there’s heaps of stuff being logged without your knowledge.

Obviously you should be extremely careful about what you upload onto the web, but you can also take some technical precautions.  For example to stop you being logged and monitored many people use VPNs and proxy servers to hide their IP address.  You can read about these methods on this site – which explains the methods involved.

Interestingly by hiding your identity you can actually surf the internet a bit more easily – many web sites filter and block access based on your location and IP address. Netflix is a very recent example, by swapping your address you can access different versions of the site, fancy Japanese Netflix – no problem. Using an American VPN therefore allows you access to US only content like Hulu and NBC.  Personally I always use a VPN to access the BBC from abroad, it’s something I simply couldn’t do without until there’s a legitimate method for accessing these sites when outside the UK,


IP Fragmentation

Under UDP, the physical network layer will usually impose a upper limit on the size of the frame that it is able to transmit. So whenever the IP layer receives a data packet to send, it will first check on which interface the datagram is being sent on then queries the interface to find the MTU. IP layer then compares the MTU with the actual size of the datagram and will perform fragmentation if it’s required. This can take place at either the original host or on an intermediate router if needed.

So what happens when an IP packet is fragmented? Well firstly you should remember that it won’t be reassembled until it reaches it’s destination. This process is performed by the IP layer on the destination device, which is designed to make the process invisible to the transport layer (TCP and UDP). This is the case although there is obviously some degradation in speed obviously. All the information required for this process is maintained in the IP header.

This helps detects data which is misent, for example missing or incorrectly routed. For example once whilst troubleshooting an issue like this, I found a router setup with a host of incorrect static routes. Important parts of data where being routed through to a French server via a VPN connection like this. It was only identified when users couldn’t watch the BBC iPlayer because they were recorded as being from a French address – see here for details.

So what fields are used from the IP header to assist in the fragmentation process? Well the IP header contains a unique value for each IP datagram which is transmitted by the sender this is known as the ‘identification’ field. The ‘flags’ field is used to identify the fragmentation by using one bit to indicate there are ‘more fragments’. This bit is always turned on except for the final fragment so it is used to identify the end. Also one of the bits in the ‘flags’ field is called the ‘don’t fragment’ bit. If this is turned on then IP will not fragment the datagram at all.

It’s important to remember that when an IP datagram is fragmented, each individual fragment becomes it’s own packet. This means that each has it’s own IP header and is routed completely independently of any other packets. Therefore it is entirely possible for the fragments to arrive at their destination in completely the wrong order. This is why the various fields in the header are so important, they ensure there is enough information to reassemble the fragments in the correct order.

John Coates, Expert on Residential VPN Services, Haber Press and Publishing, 2012