Tor troubles: A milestone in Russia’s internet crackdown
Mark your calendars for February 7. The Tor Project, a nonprofit that runs a tool that allows people to browse the internet anonymously, is going to court in Russia. The tool, also called Tor, was blocked at the end of 2021, and now The Tor Project and Russian digital rights group Roskomsvoboda are appealing.
Spoiler: they’re unlikely to win. But Tor holds huge significance for the fight for internet freedom in Russia, and worldwide.
Russia is Tor’s second biggest market after the U.S. Prior to the block, 300,000 Russians used Tor every day. That’s 15% of Tor’s worldwide traffic.
It’s one of the most important tools for getting around Russia’s escalating censorship. Banning Tor “adds to this feeling that everything is going really, really bad for internet freedoms,” said investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov.
Tor was blocked nationwide in early December. Rozkomnadzor, the government agency responsible for monitoring and blocking online content, said Tor was banned because it contains “information that ensures the operation of tools that provide access to illegal content.”
Usually, when governments block Tor, it’s an ominous “red flag” that something is about to happen or digital rights are going downhill, Gustavo Gus from The Tor Project told me.
“We should fight with every tool that we have,” he said.
Developed in the 1990s by the U.S. Navy Research Laboratory to protect intelligence communications, Tor has become a vital tool for people in authoritarian countries to circumvent firewalls and hide their identities while searching the web.
“It’s really essential for activists, human rights defenders, civil society groups and also marginalized communities — thinking about the LGBTQ community, religious minorities — around the world to access reliable information, be able to build communities and organize politically and ultimately just to stay safe,” said Allie Funk, a senior research analyst at Freedom House.
The ban on Tor comes at a time when Russia is tightening its grip on the internet. Hundreds of thousands of web resources have been blocked, including 49 websites linked to opposition figure Alexei Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Foundation.
Then there’s the sovereign internet system, which has been called the online Iron Curtain. It requires ISPs to install software that would allow the government to filter and reroute internet traffic. The fear is that it will turn Russia’s internet into that of Iran or China, sequestered behind a firewall where only government approved content is available.
The Russian government has repeatedly tried and failed to take down Tor. The Federal Security Service lobbied the Duma to ban it in 2013. Next the government offered a 3.9 million ruble reward for research into identifying anonymous Tor users. Then a 2017 law tried to regulate how people use Tor and VPNs to access blocked websites.
With these escalating attacks, Tor came to represent the war between digital rights advocates and censorship authorities for control of online spaces.
“It’s a big deal. I think because it has this symbolic meaning for a lot of people,” said Soldatov. “Everybody knows the Russian government, specifically the Interior Ministry, has been trying to find a way to block Tor for many years and always failed.”
Tor “was specifically designed to bypass censorship and to involve being constantly in this competition with totalitarian and authoritarian countries. And it looks like they are losing this battle,” said Soldatov.
Tor has come under fire in other authoritarian countries, too. Iran blocked access in 2011. Ethiopia, Venezuela, Turkey and Belarus followed suit. In some cases, users have been able to work around bans. But the crackdown is a blow to internet freedom worldwide.
“Particularly in these more authoritarian countries, governments have grown more sophisticated in their censorship,” said Funk. They aren’t just blocking websites or platforms. They’re going after the ways people access banned sites.
“So that’s VPNs, things like Tor or other sorts of circumvention technologies. It speaks to government authorities’ understanding how people use different circumvention tools and then trying to go after that in a more sophisticated way,” said Funk.
Is this the end of Tor in Russia? “I hope not,” said Soldatov. “As a rule, the totalitarian, authoritarian states, usually they lose this battle because technologically they are always a bit sloppy and slow.”
“I’m still quite optimistic. But I think the next year will be, unfortunately, quite dark for Russian users,” he added.
WHAT WE’RE WATCHING:
- Myanmar’s new cybersecurity law could go into effect any day now, almost exactly a year after the coup. It would make using a VPN punishable by up to 3 years in prison and/or a hefty fine.
- Hungary hired a lobbyist who worked for NSO Group. George Tucker worked for Mercury Public Affairs, which terminated their contract with the Israeli firm just days before U.S. sanctions
- And on the subject of Hungary, journalists targeted by Pegasus will sue the state. It could set the stage for similar legal challenges in other countries.
- An Israeli firm run by a former army colonel is developing body cams equipped with facial recognition that can identify people in a crowd, even if their faces are obscured. The company plans to market it to U.S. and Mexican law enforcement.
- Ghana’s biometric ID card will be required for all financial transactions starting July 1. This will require SIM cards, mobile money and bank accounts to be linked to the Ghana Card. There’s concern that this deadline is too soon.