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The War Against Tor: Russia Takes Aim At Popular Web Anonymizer

With nearly 150,000 users, Russia is currently the third-highest user of Tor in the world. (file photo)
With nearly 150,000 users, Russia is currently the third-highest user of Tor in the world. (file photo)

MOSCOW -- The Russian authorities apparently have a new enemy in their crosshairs: web tools that give users online anonymity.

On February 5, lawmaker Leonid Levin proposed blocking so-called web anonymizers including the most popular program, called Tor.

Tor -- an acronym for "The Onion Router" -- is encryption software that allows users to stealthily surf the Internet and bypass locally-imposed web restrictions.

Levin's proposal won quick backing from Roskomnadzor, Russia's state communications watchdog.

Roskomnadzor's press secretary, Vadim Ampelonsky, derided Tor users as "ghouls" and likened the program to a hangout for criminals. He seconded the call for it to be blocked, saying it is "technically complex, but solvable."

Internet analysts, however, are skeptical.

"It's impossible to block Tor," said Irina Levova, a Moscow-based Internet analyst.

Levova added that the authorities could feasibly block all encrypted Internet traffic. But such a move would wreak havoc on online banking and commerce. They could also address the problem legislatively, by banning software that bypasses web filters.

With 143,000 users, Russia is the third-highest user of Tor in the world, after the United States and Germany.

To conceal users' locations and usage, the Tor browser, which can be downloaded free of charge, directs Internet traffic through a worldwide volunteer network consisting of thousands of relays.

It is popular among privacy advocates, private investigators, journalists, bloggers, hackers, and criminals.

In Russia, Tor has the additional use of helping dissidents bypass web censorship amid the country’s creeping online clampdown.

Under legislation purportedly to protect minors from suicide, sexual exploitation, and drug abuse, authorities have obtained the power to extra-judicially block websites.

The legislation was used to deny many Russians access to three opposition news portals -- Kasparov.Ru, Grani.Ru, Yezhednevny Zhurnal.

Opposition leader Aleksei Navalny has also had his blog blocked, while popular liberal radio station Ekho Moskvy was briefly blocked on some Internet service providers.

The first official call to block Tor came from the Federal Security Service back in June 2013.

Anatoly Kucherena, an FSB-affiliated lawyer, told the pro-Kremlin daily Izvestia at the time that lawmakers should impose penalties for creating websites that allow users to bypass the web black list.

And, in June 2014, the Interior Ministry announced a tender on the government procurement website offering 3.9 million rubles for research that would allow authorities to identify Tor users.

According to the Tor Project's website, the number of Russian users surged after the tender was announced.

And this, said Internet analyst Levova, illustrates the dilemma the authorities face in confronting Tor: the more they try to block it, the more popular it becomes.

And Tor users say they are not concerned about all the scrutiny.

Mika, a 30-year-old Tor user who runs a smartphone software company, has been using the program to access banned opposition websites since 2014.

"How are you supposed to block constantly changing proxies?," said Mika, who declined to give his last name.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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