Russia’s measures include a massive domain name and IP address blocklist governing what services can be legally delivered by ISPs. Whether that’s the “extremist organization” behind Facebook and Instagram, BBC News, Google News, or thousands of streaming and torrent sites, access is routinely denied.
The inevitable response from citizens was to circumvent these blocks with VPNs and tools such as Tor. The equally predictable response from the authorities was to categorize tools that provide access to blocked resources as banned themselves, and also subject to blocking.
Last year Russia began blocking Tor nodes and TorProject.org, the tool’s official homepage. Tor was branded “an absolute evil” by the chairman of the State Duma’s Information Policy Committee, who dismissed its anti-censorship billing by framing Tor as a tool for criminals.
Activists Mount Legal Challenge
The blocking of TorProject.org was unusual. The authority to implement an ISP blockade was granted at the Saratov District Court back in 2017 but local telecoms watchdog Roscomnadzor only alerted Tor Project to imminent blocking early December 2021. Tor Project decided that in addition to a technical response, legal action would be required.
In partnership with digital rights activists at Roskomsvoboda, The Tor Project filed an appeal at the Saratov District Court. They argued that the blocking decision should be reversed because it was issued without giving Tor representatives an opportunity to participate – a violation of their procedural rights.
Court Agrees, Blocking Decision Set Aside
A Roskomsvoboda announcement reveals that the appeal was a success. Lawyer Ekaterina Abashina says that the exclusion of The Tor Project provided “an absolute basis for setting the decision aside” and the court agreed. The domain was ordered to be unblocked but an outright victory is still a way off.
A second submission by Tor Project, stating that Russian law does not contain any general prohibition on the dissemination of information related to anonymizing tools such as Tor, was rejected by the prosecutor and telecoms watchdog Roscomnadzor, with the latter claiming that courts have “unlimited power” to recognize any information as prohibited.
With no need to address that debate as part of the appeal, the judge ordered the blocking case to be heard at a new trial. Hearings are scheduled for this week and The Tor Project will be allowed to participate. However, the Russian prosecutor will take the opportunity to expand Tor blocking beyond the domain at the heart of the dispute by introducing a new party.
Prosecutor Decides to Involve Google
The unexpected development reported by Roskomsvoboda shows that the Saratov prosecutor’s office has decided to involve Google in the Tor Project blocking case. The prosecution asks the court to do the following:
- recognize the information contained in the Tor Browser software application as prohibited in Russia;
- recognize the Tor Browser application hosted on Google Play as prohibited;
- restrict access to the Tor Browser application;
- oblige Google LLC to remove the Tor Browser app from Google Play.
The involvement of Google in this matter 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, this may be a complication The Tor Project really doesn’t need right now.
Google and Russia’s Information War
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 seizing its bank account. The reasons for that seizure are linked to Russia’s position on what content should or should not be available online.
In the past year, Google has been repeatedly fined by Russia over its refusal to remove content that Moscow claims is “prohibited”. Google’s YouTube has also restricted access to Russian media channels, enraging the Kremlin, but in other areas also related to censorship, Google appears much more compliant.
Notably, Google has complied with dozens of Russian government requests to delist tens of thousands of URLs from its search results. These link to VPN services that in most other regions would be entirely legal but in Russia are seen as tools granting access to banned information.
From a functionality perspective, Russian authorities see little difference between VPNs and Tor. Both allow access to “prohibited” information, something the Kremlin wants to prevent. The fact that the CIA recently used Instagram to seek out Russians to act as potential informants might also come into the mix, particularly given the advice that to evade detection, they should use Tor.