Russia Increases Censorship, Blocks Access to Tor Privacy Services Across the Board

As the government continues its efforts to control the Internet and crack down on attempts to circumvent locally imposed Internet restrictions, Russia has stepped up its censorship efforts in the country by completely blocking access to the Tor network anonymity service, while also banning six virtual private network (VPN) operators.

The Russian Federal Service for Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media Regulation, also known as Roskomnadzor, the regulatory body responsible for overseeing, controlling and censoring Russian mass media, announced the blockade, accusing it of enabling access to illegal content, Reuters reported this week.

Russia accounts for 15 percent of all Tor users and has more than 310,000 users per day, second only to the United States.

Tor, short for The Onion Router, enables users to automatically encrypt and reroute their Web requests through the Tor relay network to anonymize Web traffic and help bypass censorship and protect their identities from Internet service providers and the sites they visit.

Politician Anton Gorelkin commented that, while regrettable, blocking is necessary to prevent misinformation. He added: "Tor is for me (and, I think, for all right-thinking people) an absolute evil, and we must fight it as firmly and as uncompromisingly as possible."

Confirming the blockade, the defender of the Tor Project said, "The Russian government has officially blocked our main website in Russia," adding, "Since December 1, some Russian Internet providers have begun blocking access to Tor. " The nonprofit organization responded by creating a mirror site that is still accessible in the country.

Last month, Tor launched a campaign called "Help Censored Users, Run Tor Bridges" to encourage volunteers to create more bridges - private relays that connect to Tor itself. It says it has built more than 400 new bridges using a connection called obfs4, a system that masks traffic - but now needs more, as well as the help of security trainers.

The maintainer added: "As this censorship limits direct access to our sites, malicious actors may start phishing users using fake Tor browsers or spreading false information about Tor."

Tor is not the only entity under scrutiny by Russian Internet censors. Apple introduced iCloud Private Relay in iOS 15 and macOS Monterey, and has since dropped opening the feature for Russian users, citing local regulations. The setup is designed to keep a user's Internet traffic private and out of sight of network providers (or ISPs) and websites through two separate secure Internet relay routing requests.

This encrypted mode of communication effectively blocks the network provider's target information (i.e., the website), while both the second relay (which decrypts the name of the requested website and connects the user to it) and the website itself are prevented from identifying the user, creating a simplified version of Tor.

Russia has been steadily pushing for more Internet censorship in recent years, introducing a new law that requires foreign tech giants to open representative offices in the country and store data on local servers. It has also put increasing pressure on them to censor content and has imposed hefty fines on Google, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Telegram and TikTok.

Russian state regulators have added Betternet, Lantern, X-VPN, Cloudflare WARP, Tachyon VPN and PrivateTunnel to the list of banned VPN services, with VyprVPN and Opera VPN banned in June 2021. Other VPN products that have been blocked in Russia include ExpressVPN, Hola VPN, IPVanish VPN, KeepSolid VPN Unlimited, NordVPN, ProtonVPN, and Speedify VPN.

Russia has even been testing a "sovereign Internet" system to completely isolate the country from the global Internet.

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