Part privacy service and part entryway to the illicit forums and criminal enterprises of the “Dark Web,” the Tor network will no longer be officially available to residents of Russia after a government ban. Taking a path that somewhat resembles China’s program of internet control, the Russian government has made a series of moves of this nature that restrict access to websites that it might feel are unfavorable to its interests or problematic in some way.
Tor network cut off in Russia, along with VPNs and other privacy services
Russia has blocked access to the www.torproject.org website at the national level, additionally disabling the Tor network by directing internet service providers to block elements that allow it to be accessed (such as proxies used as bridges to the service).
Of course, “blocking” the Tor network is something of a futile effort given its nature. A representative for the service said that it was still possible to access a mirror site, and means of accessing it other than the official website are essentially impossible for a government or an ISP to fully disable.
The move by Russian internet regulator Roskomnadzor, which issued the ban via a court decision last week, is instead part of a longer-term program of internet control that appears to be aimed at limiting political opposition as much as possible under the auspices of public safety and combating online extremism.
The agency was founded in 2008 under the presidency of longtime Putin affiliate Dmitry Medvedev, and has weathered criticism of targeting and stifling political dissidents throughout its history. It has taken actions against political opposition leader Alexei Navalny since 2014 when it ordered his blog blocked, and has more recently fined a variety of social media sites for refusing to remove videos of him. Roskomnadzor also blocked access to private messaging service Telegram in 2018 when the service refused to give law enforcement authorities its encryption keys, but had to abandon the effort when unintended effects of its mass IP blocks also took out access to Amazon and a variety of other hosting services.
Roskomnadzor does at least cite a legitimate excuse for blocking access to the Tor network, however; access to illegal content, something Tor has become known for at least as much (if not more) as its privacy applications. While Tor is not the only means of accessing the dark web, it is the leading “brand name” (so to speak) and one of the most common ways in which it is accessed. Surveys of available onion services consistently find that the largest percentage of traffic is engaged in illicit activities, such as the buying and selling of narcotics and trade in hacking services and stolen personal information.
But the Tor network is also widely used for personal privacy, particularly for communications between dissident and activist groups that might be targeted by authoritarian governments. When it is used in this way it is most commonly in tandem with virtual private networks (VPNs), something that Roskomnadzor has also been targeting as of late: dozens of these services have been blocked by the agency since 2019.
Russian internet control program cites sources of online harm, but trends toward political suppression
It remains to be seen how effective this internet control strategy will be, but prior to the ban Russia was the world’s second-largest user of the Tor network with about 300,000 daily users.
Russia has made other moves that parallel those of China’s internet control schemes in the past year: it now requires foreign companies with a presence in the company to store Russian user data on servers within the country, and to maintain representative offices in the country to assist with government queries. While those elements may not be bad things in and of themselves, the country also appears to be moving forward with the “Sovereign Internet” concept introduced in late 2019. Though it has yet to be implemented, this law grants the government the authority to partition Russia’s internet off from the rest of the world (a la China’s “Great Firewall”).
The Sovereign Internet project also proposes a number of mandatory surveillance technologies for internet control that are still taking shape. One of these is “deep packet inspection,” a proposed system that would give ISPs the ability to peer into encrypted communications.
As Russian internet users seek alternate means of entry to the Tor network, malicious nodes are increasingly becoming a problem. Some researchers believe that the Russian government’s sophisticated nation-state hacking teams are the leading seeders of these “attack nodes.” Tor network nodes are particularly dangerous upon exit, with malicious nodes having the ability to strip the protections normally offered by SSL (https://) connections and view potentially sensitive plaintext data. As Russia expands its efforts towards internet control, it may show increased willingness to bring its intelligence teams to bear against the broader domestic population.