Using social media where access is restricted.

This is public service blogging, available under a Creative Commons Zero public domain compatible license. Though it is based on established good online practice, and publicly available information, I should be clear that this is my own work and is not endorsed by my employers.

Professionally and personally, social media has become near-essential to most of us. But what would you do if access was unavailable, because of a technical or policy issue? In this post I’ve tried to collect together a basic toolkit that might be useful in such situations. Needless to say, you should probably read this post before rather than after you experience issues, and actually preparing stuff now is perhaps sensible as you may not be able to read this post when you need it.

In all, there are three possible places things could go wrong: issues with connection to the internet, issues with the availability of a particular service, and issues with your account on a particular service.

1. Connection to the internet
Most of us have access to numerous ways of getting online – via mobile networks, home broadband, workplace/place of study broadband and public (eg libraries, coffee shops, internet cafe…) broadband. It would be rare for all of these to go down at once, so actual connection to the internet in some form is unlikely to be an issue. However, any or all of these methods potentially could block access to particular services, so do please see section 2 below..

If you are genuinely in a black hole, dial up internet still exists in the UK, and many laptops still have integrated modems. It’s worth being aware of settings stuff like Free Dialup UK and Freeola, and ensuring you have the appropriate cable.

2. Availability of a service
Before donning your tinfoil hat, it is possible that a popular social network may have just fallen over. You should use down for everyone, or just me? to check. If “down for everyone…” reports the service is available, and you are able to access other sites (eg, chances are the service is being blocked between you and the servers it lives on. If you are interested where, you could use something like Traceroute (Mac/Linux) or TRACERT (windows) .

First thing to do is try an alternate browser, specifically Opera. Now I’m a fan of Opera anyway (on mobile and desktop) but even if you are a hater it’s worth having around for odd moments like this. Opera includes a function called “opera turbo” in the desktop version (built in to Opera Mini for mobile phones) which is a very easy to use “proxy” service. Without even worrying about what a “proxy” is for the moment, if you turn on opera turbo you effectively look (to your network) like you are connecting to a server in Norway, and to the site you are trying to connect to like you are in Norway! So, whether your network manager is blocking access to a service, or the service itself is blocking access to people in your country, you should be OK.

Of course, Opera is a proprietary, commercial and single-supplier solution. It’s very easy, but also very obvious. You may feel happier using an alternate “proxy” service. There are many, and they change regularly. Here’s a huge, dynamic, list. Here’s another. Each of these works in a similar way to Opera Turbo… you point to one server, the server goes and fetches the actual page you ask for and gives it to you. There are many potential issues – certain scripts and multimedia objects may not be available, and security may be an issue. For speedier connection, you may want to connect to stuff like the mobile twitter or facebook site rather than the full-fat version if you are connecting via a proxy.

For serious privacy and anonymity, you may want to consider something like TOR, a multiple-layer proxy originally developed by the US Navy but now entirely open. You need to invest some time in setting up TOR, and for most applications it’s probably overkill… but it is definitely worth having around.

3. Issues with your account
If your social media account is blocked, it’s been done by the service provider (twitter, facebook, g+, whatever [links are to terms of service]). They’ll have done this either because you have done something naughty, or because someone scary has told them you have done something naughty.

The easy advice is to try and avoid doing anything naughty… however the definition of naughty is constantly changing and may correspond to stuff that actually needs to be done. Sometimes it is unavoidable, sometimes existing restrictions are applied in ways that are unexpected.

The key message here is redundancy. Don’t communicate to people via a single network, have multiple connections to the same group. For instance, don’t just use facebook messages to communicate to someone, know their email address too. This also makes sense should a social network suddenly disappear entirely.

With the wide availability of free email addresses, it is trivial to create an alternate account. Judicious use of twitter hashtags, facebook groups, or simply a good memory for user names would get you back to where you were fairly quickly. Of course, there’s nothing to stop your new account being closed too if you continue to be “naughty”, so be prepared to do this a number of times if you are committed to this course of action.

Do you need to post something somewhere without anyone knowing it came from you? Several tools are available to freely and easily post material online anonymously. Pastebin is perhaps the best known for plain text, you could also use something like typewithme for collaboration and comments. File transfer services like MediaFire are a good way to anonymously share binary files.

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