Network freedom: Russia pulls the plug on Tor-Browser

Status: 11.12.2021 8:31 a.m.

Russia is the world’s second largest user group of the anonymization browser Tor – but the Russian media regulator is gradually blocking access. Not only journalists see themselves further restricted by this.

By Natalie Sablowski for

Russia’s media supervisory authority Roskomnadzor has blocked large parts of the Tor network, which allows users to surf the net anonymously and also access the darknet – a step that further restricts freedom of information in the country.

According to the organization RosKomSvoboda, which campaigns for anonymity and against censorship on the Internet, the blocking of Tor began on December 1: users in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and many other Russian cities reported that they had no connection to the Tor network could produce.

Only a few days later, on December 7th, the Internet activists of the Tor project received a request from Roskomnadzor to delete “prohibited” content from their website. Otherwise the website threatens to be blocked. The authority did not state what content was meant by this. The blockade followed on the same day.

Problems in using the anonymization service have been around since autumn, reports a journalist from Novaya Gazeta: The already slow connection has been throttled. She uses the Tor browser to pursue her research away from government observation – because the browser blurs her digital traces on the Internet, she explains.

In Russia, around 300,000 people use the service every day. This means that the country has the second largest user group after the USA. On Twitter, Edward Snowden, who used the Tor network himself, called for an end to the blocking.

VPN no alternative

“Tor is a way of communicating and exchanging information securely and encrypted,” explains Lisa Dittmar, Internet Freedom Officer at Reporters Without Borders (RSF). “There are many good reasons to maintain networks like Tor. Especially in countries like Russia, where journalists are criminalized and their work can be life-threatening. On the Russian Internet, the government already has many opportunities to keep track of which topics someone is researching and with whom the person is speaking. ” Therefore RSF supported the operation of two Tor servers with financial means.

VPN services are an alternative to the Tor network, says Dittmar – but with these, the disclosure of the identity to the VPN operator is a problem: “He sees and saves what the user is doing. There is a risk that the VPN will become involved -Operator bends state demands and passes on user data. This is a real problem in Russia. ” In fact, while blocking the Tor network, Roskomnadzor blocked a large number of VPN services.

Roskomnadzor blocks IP addresses

Tor, the abbreviation for “The Onion Router”, works like an onion: the browser redirects the Internet traffic several times, so that it is no longer clear who a message is coming from and who it is going to. Each diversion represents a layer of onion that covers the identity of the sender.

However, since the Tor network is a public network and the IP addresses of all Tor portals are publicly listed, it is relatively easy to block direct Tor connections. The Russian government is now trying to prevent people in Russia from being able to contact one of these Tor portals at all.

In order to bypass the current blockade, the Internet activists around the Tor project have started to create so-called bridges – these are non-public IP addresses. They serve as alternative portals to the Tor network and are more difficult to block.

On the way to the “sovereign Runet”

But Roskomnadzor is already on the activists’ heels: “We have found evidence that the Russian government is not only blocking the public IP addresses in the Tor network, but also the non-public ones,” explains Gustavo Gus, who is responsible for the Tor network. Project leads the community section. “This means that the Russian government uses censorship technologies in the form of deep package inspection systems (DPI). Providers are obliged to install these systems. They analyze data packets according to predetermined criteria, and block or slow down the transmission.”

Stanislav Shakirov, technical director of RosKomSvoboda, sees this as a “typical” procedure of the authority, as he says: You proceed in small steps, test the blockage, watch what happens. In addition to the technical knowledge, Roskomonadzor also saw that many people are ready to defend their right to use the gate.

Nevertheless, Shakirov is convinced, the government is now beginning step by step to isolate the Russian Internet from the rest of the world – and is steadily creating a “sovereign Russian Internet”.

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