After years of government censorship to suppress dissent and keep narratives allowed, unfiltered internet access in Russia is seen as a threat.
Russia’s measures include a massive blacklist of domain names and IP addresses governing services that can be legally provided by ISPs. Whether it’s the “extremist organisation” behind Facebook and Instagram, BBC News, Google News or thousands of streaming and torrent sites, access is consistently denied.
The inevitable response from citizens has been to circumvent these blocks with VPNs and tools like Tor. The equally predictable response from authorities has been to categorize tools that provide access to blocked resources as themselves prohibited, and subject to blocking as well.
Last year, Russia began blocking Tor nodes and TorProject.org, the tool’s official homepage. Tor was called “absolute evil” by the chairman of the State Duma’s Information Policy Committee, who dismissed its anti-censorship billing by portraying Tor as a tool for criminals.
Activists launch legal challenge
The blocking of TorProject.org was unusual. Authority to implement an ISP blockade was granted to the Saratov District Court in 2017, but local telecommunications watchdog Roscomnadzor did not alert Tor Project of the impending blockage until early December 2021. Tor Project a decision that in addition to a technical response, legal action would be required.
In partnership with digital rights activists in Roskomsvoboda, The Tor Project filed an appeal with the Saratov District Court. They argued that the blocking decision should be reversed because it was issued without giving Tor representatives the opportunity to participate – a violation of their procedural rights.
The court agrees, the blocking decision is reversed
A Roskomsvoboda announces that the appeal was successful. Lawyer Ekaterina Abashina said the exclusion from the project provided “an absolute basis to overturn the decision” and the court agreed. The domain was ordered to be unlocked, but an outright victory is still a long way off.
A second communication from the Tor Project, stating that Russian law does not contain any general ban on dissemination of information related to anonymization tools such as Tor, was rejected by prosecutors and telecommunications watchdog Roscomnadzor, with the latter saying courts have “unlimited power” to recognize any information as prohibited.
Not needing to address that debate on appeal, the judge ordered the blocking case to be heard in a new trial. Hearings are expected this week and the Tor Project will be allowed to participate. However, the Russian prosecutor will take the opportunity to extend the blocking of Tor beyond the area at the heart of the dispute by introducing a new part.
The prosecutor decides to implicate Google
The unexpected development reported by Roskomsvoboda shows that the Saratov prosecutor’s office decided to involve Google in the case of blocking the Tor project. The Crown asks the court to do the following:
- recognize information stored in the Tor Browser software application as prohibited in Russia;
- recognize the Tor Browser application hosted on Google Play as prohibited;
- Tor Browser app access restrictor;
- compel Google LLC to remove the Tor Browser app from Google Play.
Google’s involvement in this case could go either way. Google may choose to stand up and fight, giving the Tor Project an indirect boost with its considerable legal muscle. Alternatively, it may be a complication that the Tor project really doesn’t need right now.
Google and the Information War in Russia
Last week, Google’s Russian subsidiary said it would file for bankruptcy and move its staff out of Moscow in response to the Russian government’s seizure of its bank account. The reasons for this seizure have to do with Russia’s position on what content should or should not be available online.
Over the past year, Google has been repeatedly ordered to amend by Russia for its refusal to remove content that Moscow calls “banned”. Google’s YouTube has also restricted access to Russian media channels, angering the Kremlin, but in other areas also related to censorship, Google seems much more compliant.
Notably, Google complied with dozens of requests from the Russian government to remove the tens of thousands of URLs from its search results. These are related to VPN services which in most other regions would be fully permitted, but in Russia they are considered tools for accessing prohibited information.
Feature-wise, Russian authorities see little difference between VPNs and Tor. Both allow access to “forbidden” information, which the Kremlin wants to prevent. The fact that the CIA recently used Instagram to seek out Russians to act as potential informants could also enter the mix, especially given the advice that to evade detection they should use Tor.