In early December, users in Russia began to have trouble accessing the Tor browser. After several days of technical difficulties, reports emerged that Russia’s censorship agency (Roskomnadzor) had sent a notice to the Tor Project team, demanding that they remove unspecified “prohibited content.” The project’s landing website is currently blocked in Russia, while the Tor browser itself works intermittently. What does this mean for RuNet users? And is Roskomnadzor really capable of fully blocking the Tor browser? For answers to these and other questions, Meduza turned to Leonid Yevdokimov, a technical expert at the digital rights group Roskomsvoboda.
Asked why Russia’s censorship agency wants to block the Tor browser, technical expert Leonid Yevdokimov replies that the real question is why now?
As he recalls, the Tor Project’s landing website was added to Russia’s blacklist of sites containing “prohibited information” following a court ruling in 2017. (The ruling did not, however, restrict access to the site itself.) Now, four years later, Roskomnadzor is threatening to block the entire Tor browser, also under the pretense of “prohibited” content.
“Tor is an anonymizer that allows you to gain access to information that [the authorities] don’t want to see on the territory of the Russian Federation. So [in their opinion], it must filter access for Russian users or be blocked in accordance with the law on anonymizers,” Yevdokimov tells Meduza.
The technical expert is referring to legislation Russia adopted in 2017, which banned censorship-circumvention tools like virtual private network (VPN) services and Internet anonymizers. (The Russian authorities have been actively cracking down on VPN services over the past six months, as well.)
With this in mind, Yevdokimov believes it’s unlikely that the Tor Project would actually be able to remove “prohibited” content to comply with Roskomnadzor’s request. “If I understand the logic correctly, then Tor Project Inc. is being blocked as an anonymizer. This company doesn’t manage the network’s main nodes, they don’t have administrative control,” he says.
If Tor is blocked in Russia, the browser’s users aren’t the only ones who will be affected, the technical expert warns. “If a person used Tor exclusively to bypass blocks, they can find other means, there’s a few of them on the market,” Yevdokimov says. “For [Internet] users who don’t use Tor, this story may lead to their audio and video calls on Zoom or Google Meet starting to glitch.” Indeed, these major services, as well as others like Slack, rely on Tor’s Snowflake proxies.
Tor will likely have a much harder time circumventing Roskomnadzor’s blocking efforts than Telegram did, Yevdokimov says. Thanks to “Internet isolation” legislation that entered force in 2019, Roskomnadzor’s censorship capacity has improved by leaps and bounds since its unsuccessful attempt to block the messenger in 2018.
Since then, Internet service providers have been forced to install “technical means for countering threats” — special equipment that let Russian officials commandeer Internet access.
That said, Russia’s censorship agency would have to take extensive measures to completely cut off access to the browser. “Tor [now] has fewer opportunities — probably less than Telegram had. But they all relate to [the question] of ‘how else can we mask ourselves that would be irreconcilably costly [for Roskomnadzor] to block?’,” Yevdokimov explains.
“Hypothetically, there’s the possibility of a complete block of Tor — if the agency [Roskomnadzor] disconnects the [entire] Internet: that’s if we take the situation to the point of absurdity,” the expert concludes. “But if they leave access to a global network, there may still be [a block] — but, perhaps, thanks to future releases of Tor, this task will become more difficult with the help of updates.”
Meduza is working for you And we need your support
Summary by Eilish Hart