Volunteers urged to build bridges while Tor contests blockade

The Tor Project has filled an appeal appeal challenging the block of the torproject.org website and wider censorship in Russia

The Tor Project is going to court in Russia to appeal a recent decision to block its main website, torproject.org.

Court-mandated restrictions on its website have been accompanied by wider attempts to censor access to the Tor network across Russia.

Default bridges available in Tor Browser aren’t working in some places in Russia and this – along with the blocking of the torproject.net website – has resulted in a sharp decline in anonymized traffic in the country.

Russia previously had 300,000 daily Tor users, representing around 15% of all users on the anonymity network. But this has declined sharply to fewer than 200,000 daily users since late November 2021.

Digital blockade

On December 6, 2021, the Tor Project was notified that the domain torproject.org would be blocked in Russia “based on a formal decision of the Russian Saratov District Court of 2017, in accordance with Article 15.1 of the Law on Information in Russia”.

The court decision was based on generalized claims that the Tor Project’s anonymizing browser facilitated access to “extremist materials”.

Tor contested these claims arguing that its privacy-protecting browser is an important tool for journalists, activists, human rights defenders, and marginalized people to protect themselves online.

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The Tor Project has teamed up with RosKomSvoboda, a Russian digital rights organization, to file an appeal in Saratov District Court that challenges the block on torproject.org.

The ban was made without allowing the Tor Project to contest the case in addition to violating the “constitutional right to freely provide, receive and disseminate information and protect privacy” of Russians, the appellants argue.

The first hearing in the case is due to take place on February 7.

Isabela Bagueros, executive director of the Tor Project, commented: “With the help of attorneys from RosKomSvoboda, Darbinyan Sarkis, and Abashina Ekaterina, we are appealing the court decision and we hope to revert this situation and help create a precedent in Russia for digital rights.”

Take it to the bridge

The Russian government recently installed new censorship mechanisms on different internet providers.

This new censorship system is called TSPU, and it was used to throttle Twitter’s traffic in 2021. “This is an ongoing process and it isn’t deployed in the entire country,” according to the Tor Project.

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Tor Browser is bundled with different circumvention methods:

  1. Using built-in bridges (a collection of public obfs4 bridges, meek-azure, and snowflake)

  2. Getting a bridge from within Tor Browser
  3. Manually adding a bridge from the Telegram bot or email

Bagueros told The Daily Swig: “In ISPs that have TSPU devices installed, Tor users will need to use a bridge to bypass the Tor network block.

“At the moment, this device is blocking some known bridges that they have discovered, but Snowflake, meek-azure, and bridges from the Tor Telegram bot will work for them to connect to Tor.”

While the case is under consideration, the Tor Project and its allies are taking practical steps to facilitate access to its anonymization network through the Tor Browser.

Smoke and mirrors

In order to help counter censorship against the Tor network, more than 1,000 new Tor bridges have been added to the network by volunteer bridge operators since December 2021, as explained in a recent blog post by the Tor Project.

In addition, users in Russia unable to access the main torproject.net website can still access the same set of resources by accessing a mirror website, tor.eff.org, set up by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

“Blocking the main website impedes people from downloading the Tor Browser,” Bagueros explained. However, we believe that the bigger contribution to the reduced Tor usage in Russia is due to blocking the Tor network itself.”

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