For years the anonymity service Tor has been the best way to stay private online and avoid web censorship. Much to the anger of governments and law enforcement, Tor encrypts your web traffic and sends it through a chain of computers, making it very difficult for people to follow you online. Authoritarian governments see it as a threatens to their longevity, and in recent months Russia has stepped up its long-term ambition to block Tor, but not without a fight.
In December 2021, Russian media regulator Roskomnadzor issued a 4-year-old court order that allows it to order internet service providers (ISPs) to block the Tor project website, where the Tor browser can be downloaded, and restrict access to its services. Since then, censors have been locked in a battle with the Tor tech team and users in Russia, who are pushing to keep the Tor network online and allow people access to the otherwise uncensored web. heavily restricted in the country.
Russia’s efforts to block Tor have two aspects: the technical and the political. So far, Tor has had success on both fronts. He found ways to evade Russian blocking efforts, and this month he was deleted from Russia’s list of blocked websites following a legal challenge. (Although that doesn’t mean blocking efforts will end instantly.)
“We’re under attack from the Russian government, they’re trying to block Tor,” says Gustavo Gus, Community Team Leader for the Tor Project. The past few months have seen Russian officials adapt their tactics, Gus says, while the Tor Project’s anti-censorship engineers successfully rolled out updates to prevent its services from being blocked. “The fight is not over,” Gus said. “People can connect to Tor. People can easily bypass censorship.
In Russia, the Internet infrastructure is relatively decentralized: ISPs can receive blocking orders from Roskomnadzor, but it is up to each company to implement them. (China is the only country that has actually blocked Tor, which was possible due to more centralized Internet control). While the Russian authorities have been installation of new equipment who uses deep packet inspection to monitor and block online services, the effectiveness of these blocks is mixed.
“The censorship going on in Russia is not constant and uniform,” says Gus. Gus explains that due to different ISPs, Tor may be blocked for some people but not for others, even those in the same city. Tor measurements and external analysis seem to show the decreasing effectiveness of Russian censorship.
Tor data shows that since the end of 2021 there has been a big drop the number of people connecting directly to Tor in Russia. However, people can connect to its services using volunteer-run services. bridges– network entry points that cannot be easily blocked, as their details are not public – and Tor’s anti-censorship tool Snowflake. External data from the Internet monitoring group Open Observatory of Network Interference shows a big increase in people in Russia accessing Tor using Snowflake.