How Tor Is Fighting—and Beating—Russian Censorship

For years, the The Tor anonymity service has been the best way to stay private online and circumvent web censorship. Much to the ire of governments and law enforcement agencies, Tor encrypts your web traffic and sends it through a chain of computers, making it very difficult for people to track you on line. Authoritarian governments see this as a particular threat to their longevity, and in recent months, Russia has stepped up its long-term ambition to block Tor, though not without a fight.

In December 2021, Russia’s media regulator Roskomnadzor enacted a 4-year-old court order allowing it to order Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block the Tor Project website, where the Tor browser, and restrict access to its services. Since then, the censors have been locked in a battle with the Tor technical team and users in Russia, who are pushing to keep the Tor network online and allow people to access the web without censorship, which d otherwise it is very restricted in the country.

Russia’s efforts to block Tor have two aspects: technical and political. So far, Tor has had some success on both fronts. It has found ways to circumvent Russia’s blocking efforts and was removed from Russia’s list of blocked websites this month after a legal challenge. (Though that doesn’t mean blocking efforts will end instantly.)

“We’re being attacked by the Russian government, they’re trying to block Tor,” says Gustavo Gus, head of the Tor Project Community Team. Over the past few months, Russian officials have adapted their tactics, Gus says, while anti-censorship engineers at the Tor Project have successfully rolled out updates to prevent their services from being blocked. “The fight isn’t over,” Gus says. “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 individual companies to implement them. (China is the only country that has effectively blocked Tor, which was made possible by more centralized internet control.) Although Russian authorities have installed new equipment that uses deep packet inspection to monitor and block online services, the effectiveness of these blocks is mixed.

“The censorship that’s going on in Russia is not constant and uniform,” says Gus. Gus explains that due to different ISPs, Tor can be blocked for some people but not for others, even those in the same city. Both Tor metrics and external analysis appear to show the declining effectiveness of Russian censorship.

Tor data shows that since the end of 2021 there has been a big drop in the number of people connecting directly to Tor in Russia. However, people can connect to their services using volunteer-run bridges (entry points to the network that cannot be easily blocked because their data is not public) and Tor’s anti-censorship tool Snowflake. External data from the Internet monitoring group Open Observatory of Network Interference shows a large increase in people in Russia accessing Tor using Snowflake.

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