Circumvent Censorship, Unblock Internet Access Using Mac OS

Reading the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) short guide for journalists at the Beijing Olympics was quite sobering. The human rights situation for people in China has only gotten worse with the coming of the Olympics to Beijing. Yesterday, the IOC admitted that it had agreed to censorship of Internet access for journalists.

This article will describe how to install software that can protect your online privacy and anonymity if you’re a reporter at the Olympic Games in China, a cyber-dissident in a human rights hot-spot, an activist getting the word out, or if you’re in any situation where your freedoms are threatened or curtailed through your use of the Internet.

The RSF article is helpful but the technical advice is limited. In particular, there is no advice specific to Macintosh users. Solutions for circumventing restrictions — such as Internet censorship — are straightforward to implement on a Macintosh and will be outlined here. Using simple tools that you can download and use for free, you can unblock restricted or censored content on the Internet.

This article is limited to the use of Tor with a web browser. Many applications, such as email and IM (eg, Google Mail and Meebo) can be accessed through a web browser. Therefore, such web-based solutions using a single web browser may be more practical than configuring many separate desktop applications to work with Tor.


    • Firefox An excellent web browser in its own right. These instructions were written for Firefox version 3.
    • Torbutton Makes it easy to switch Firefox to the Tor network.
    • Vidalia bundle Manages the Tor components on the Macintosh.

The following are components of the Vidalia bundle.

Tor is a system and the software for using the Internet anonymously. It allows you to browse and to publish to the web anonymously. It can also be used for IM, email, and other communication applications. More about Tor can be found here.

Vidalia is a Mac OS GUI for Tor. Vidalia lets you configure, control, and monitor your Tor installation. More about Vidalia can be found here.

Privoxy is a filtering web proxy that works together with Tor to protect your privacy. The Privoxy proxy server acts like a server on your local Mac to route all network communications. More about Privoxy can be found here.

Note that the Vidalia bundle includes but doesn’t correctly install Torbutton. This may be because the latest version of Firefox requires a newer Torbutton installer than the one in the Vidalia installer. To get around this limitation, it’s recommended to use the Torbutton installation procedure described in this article.


Installing Firefox

If you’ve installed software on a Macintosh before, you’ll find nothing unusual about installing Firefox. The Firefox installation instructions are for those who are completely new to this. If you have Firefox installed, skip to Torbutton installation, below.

After downloading the Firefox software package to your Desktop, double-click the package file to open it. You’ll be presented with a license agreement that you must accept to continue. After you accept the license agreement, the package will unpack. This will open a window, as shown below, and it will place a Firefox installer icon on your Desktop. For now, you can ignore the icon on the Desktop. The window will display the Firefox icon and an arrow that directs you to the Applications folder.


Drag the Firefox icon to the Applications folder icon shown. The Firefox software will be copied to your local Applications folder. Close this window. Also, drag to the Trash the Firefox icon on the Desktop.

Switch to Finder (press the tab key while holding down the command key; release when you’ve reached Finder). Open a new Finder window by selecting New Finder Window from the File menu. Open the Applications folder and locate the Firefox program icon. Drag the icon to your Dock. You can now launch Firefox by selecting its icon from your Dock.


Installing Torbutton

Launch Firefox. Additional functions can be installed into Firefox through the use of extensions known as Add-ons. The easiest way to install Add-ons is through the Add-ons command under the Tools menu in Firefox. Once you open the Add-ons window, select the Get Add-ons icon at the top.


Type “tor button” into the search box in the upper left side of the window, as shown above. Click the magnifying glass icon to start the search and the results should appear as pictured. The Torbutton Add-on should be the very first item displayed. Next, click the Add to Firefox button to begin the installation of the Add-on. You’ll see a customary warning about trusted software. If you’ve followed these instructions, the URL for the Add-on should start with (Note the s in https.) If that’s correct, it’s generally safe to proceed by clicking the Install Now button. Torbutton will take a few seconds to install. Then, you’ll be prompted to restart Firefox.

After restarting Firefox, a small icon depicting an onion with a red X should be available in the bottom right corner of Firefox, as shown below.


Installing Vidalia

The Vidalia bundle installer for Mac OS X Tiger (10.4) is here. There is no specific installer listed for Leopard (Mac OS X 10.5) but the Tiger installer may work for Leopard.

Note that the Vidalia bundle contains four separate applications — Tor, Vidalia, Privoxy, and Torbutton. The first three are required. Because we’ve installed Torbutton separately, the Vidalia installer will simply skip it.

After downloading the software package to your Desktop, double-click the package. This will open a window and it will place a Vidalia installer icon on your Desktop. In the window, double-click the mpkg icon, shown below. This will start the installation.


A Welcome screen will be displayed for which you should click the Continue button. Next, you’ll be presented with the available destination volumes (hard drives) onto which you can install Vidalia. In most cases, there’s just one choice. Click the one you want, then click Continue. The installer will configure itself and then prompt you to start the actual installation. Click Install. If your Mac requires an administrator’s password for software installation, enter it when prompted. Click Close when the installation is done. You can then drag the Vidalia installer icon from the Desktop to the Trash.

Back in Finder, open the Applications folder and locate the Vidalia application icon. Drag the Vidalia icon to your Dock. You can now launch Vidalia from the Dock whenever you need it.

Note that the Privoxy component will run continuously in the background from now on. You do not need to enable, disable, start, or stop it. It will be available to any applications that request its services. Starting and stopping Vidalia controls Tor and its communications through Privoxy.


There is no configuration required. All default settings should enable you to use the Tor network immediately.

Testing & Using

Launch the Vidalia application from the Dock. The Vidalia control panel should appear and indicate its status. Tor will initialize and the icon at the top will change to green, indicating that Tor is running, as shown below. This control panel provides a way to configure and control Tor and Privoxy from a single, friendly interface.


There are various configuration options available but, as noted earlier, the default settings are adequate for most users.

With Tor running, any applications that use network communications, such as your web browser, can now be directed to use Tor to protect the communications taking place. Note that the communications aren’t automatically protected — each application that you want to use with Tor must be directed to do so. In the case of Firefox, this means using the Torbutton.

With Vidalia running, open Firefox. In the lower right corner of the Firefox window there’s the onion icon with a red X mentioned earlier in this article. Click this icon — it should change to a green onion, similar to the one in the Vidalia control panel. Clicking the Torbutton tells Firefox to use Tor and the green icon provides visual confirmation that Firefox is enabled for Tor.


Now you can test your Tor installation. Point your browser to this web page. If your installation was successful, you should see a message in green announcing that you’re using Tor. (An IP is an Internet Protocol address, a numeric address identifying your connection to the Internet.)


If anything has gone awry with the installation, you’ll see a message in red warning you that you aren’t accessing the web using Tor.


Alternately, if you’ve enabled the Torbutton without running Vidalia, you’ll see an error message similar to the following. It’s meant to inform you that Firefox is trying to use Tor via Privoxy, but Privoxy doesn’t know what to do because Tor isn’t actually running. If you see this error, simply launch Vidalia and reload the web page. Or simply disable the Torbutton to browse the web normally without Tor.


See this page at