How Tor Is Fighting—and Beating—Russian Censorship

The latest version of the Tor browser, 11.5, which was released last week, introduces new features to automatically try to help people circumvent censorship based on their location. In addition to issuing updates to circumvent the way Tor is being blocked, the nonprofit technology organization has also been directly gathering information from people in Russia. Gus says it has introduced more support for Russian users, who can report back if they are being blocked. There are also more volunteer-run bridges that people in Russia can use to access Tor.

Gus also says that using Telegram to share details of Tor bridges has been effective in fighting blocks. “The bridges that they were blocking were not the same bridges that we were sharing with users,” Gus says, adding that Tor has plans to share bridges via Signal and WhatsApp in the future.

Tor is also working to stop the potential abuse of bridges. In 2016, researchers proposed a system called Salmon that aims to weed out those accessing bridge details with the intent of blocking or abusing them. Gus says the Tor team is working to turn this proposal into reality, and it would essentially assign “reliability” scores around the use of bridges. If someone requests a bridge and it ends up getting blocked, they may be considered less trustworthy. “If I give you another bridge and it gets blocked again, then you will get another bad score,” Gus says.

Russia’s efforts to block Tor aren’t just confined to within its own borders, though. In some areas of occupied Ukraine, such as the city of Kherson, Ukrainian internet connections are being rerouted through Russian networks, and that brings censorship and surveillance with it. Gus says that as this shift has started to happen—signaling a potential long-term occupation and “Russification” of the areas—people using Tor in Ukraine have reported it not working and websites not loading. “They are being affected by the same censorship that people in other places in Russia were reporting to us,” Gus says.

If people are able to access Tor—both in Russia and occupied Ukraine—they will be able to access news and information that isn’t controlled by the Russian government. Sarkis Darbinyan, head of legal practice of Russian digital rights group Roskomsvoboda, says more than 5,500 websites have been blocked in Russia since its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February. “For getting access to truthful information for Russian users, it is now critical to have tools like VPN and Tor, which let people quickly and effectively restore their violated rights,” Darbinyan says.

Roskomsvoboda has been representing Tor in its legal cases against Russian authorities pro bono. So far it has successfully overturned Roskomnadzor’s December decision to block Tor—in part because of procedural issues. Although other related legal proceedings are ongoing, Darbinyan says Roskomsvoboda is seeking a “complete cancel” of the decision that Tor should be blocked.

Krapiva describes the court case against Tor as a “rare victory” for digital and human rights in Russia. However, she cautions that it is likely to be a “temporary” win, and that Russian authorities may try to legally block Tor again. But this doesn’t mean it will be able to stop people from using Tor. “We’re still seeing that the technologies they have can be quite effective for blocking some things, but are not 100 percent effective,” Krapiva says. “In practice, whether Tor will be fully blocked—I doubt it, to be honest. But legally, I think they will try again, and might eventually succeed.”

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