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Internet blocking in Iran: How to lend a helping hand with Snowflake

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With just a few clicks, you can help people affected by internet blockages in their home countries. The Tor proxy Snowflake makes it possible.

The political situation in Iran continues to deteriorate: The government there recently ordered further Internet blocking after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Jina Amini led to violent protests in the country. The young woman died after being arrested by the vice squad, apparently because her headscarf was said to not fit properly. In order to prevent the free exchange of information, the Iranian government has blocked access to many international online services, including messenger apps and social media platforms.

Based on the data from the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI), it can be seen that there have been anomalies, i.e. disruptions, when establishing a connection with WhatsApp since September 21. According to the data, other services such as Facebook Messenger, Telegram and Signal have long been disrupted in Iran. Access to the anonymizing Tor network is also prevented.

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You can easily help people in Iran – but also in other countries affected by network blocking – to access the Internet uncensored and to obtain independent information: Installing the Snowflake browser extension allows those affected to access the Internet despite network blocking. The principle is simple: your own computer works as a proxy and serves as a stepping stone to the Tor network. The user’s Tor browser establishes an unobtrusive WebRTC connection to the Snowflake user’s computer and from there it continues into the Tor network.

 

Download snowflakes
  • Snowflake for Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge and other Chromium-based browsers
  • Snowflake for Mozilla Firefox and other Firefox-based browsers

The Snowflake extension is lightweight and does not interfere with browser usage. After installation, it is automatically active. A click on the snowflake symbol in the browser reveals how many users have already been helped. There is the extension for Chromium and Firefox based browsers like Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Microsoft Edge and Brave. If you like, you can also run the Snowflake proxy as an independent program, for example in a Docker container.

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The more volunteers install the Snowflake extension, the better the process works: the volunteers’ IP addresses form a large pool of access options that is constantly changing – because new participants are added and, moreover, dynamically changing IP addresses are often in use. It is therefore hardly possible to block all proxy IPs. So-called brokers serve as intermediaries between Tor users and Snowflake proxies.

So that the connection to these central connection servers cannot be blocked so easily, they run on the infrastructure of large Content Delivery Networks (CDN), for example at Google. The connection is not established to the broker’s domain, but rather to google.com. The domain actually requested is only found in the encrypted HTTP header. This allows the CDN to correctly map the request and forward it to the mediation server. For outsiders, the connection looks like a contact to google.com – if you want to prevent the connection, you would have to completely block access to Google in this example.

 

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According to the current state of knowledge, the support is risk-free for the volunteers who install the Snowflake extension in their browsers and provide their Internet access as a proxy: the proxy only forwards encrypted Tor traffic to the Tor network, there are no direct connections to the target servers in the Tor network built internet. Due to the established anonymization layers in the Tor network, your own IP address remains hidden and it is not comprehensible that the retrieval of a specific website took the path through a specific Snowflake proxy. It is just as difficult to trace which Tor user requested the website.

 

On the other hand, in order to bypass Internet blocks with Snowflake, the Tor browser must first be installed. Then use the menu button at the top right (three lines) to open the settings and then the “Connection” subpage. Finally, Snowflake is added and activated via the “Select a deployed bridge…” button. In order for the bridge to be used, the Tor Browser should then be restarted, alternatively you can press the “New Identity” button (top right, broom icon).

If it still fails to connect to the Tor network, the Tor Browser will ask for the country in which it operates to suggest a bridge type best suited to local conditions. In addition to Snowflake, the Tor Browser also masters the obfs4 and meek-azure bridge processes. The anti-censorship bridges can also be used with smartphones and tablets: on Android with the Tor Browser, on iOS with OnionBrowser.

Citizens in countries affected by internet censorship benefit twice over from your commitment: Snowflake and Tor not only allow free access to information, they also don’t have to worry about being observed by the government and leaving traces behind.

Another way to support the people of Iran is to set up a proxy for the messenger Signal. This requires a server on which you can start a Docker container. The installation steps can be found in the Signal blog, the use of a proxy with the Signal app is also documented, also in Persian.

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