Twitter launches Tor service amid Russian social media censorship

9 Mar 2022

Image: © vachom/Stock.adobe.com

The service will let people access Twitter through a browser such as Tor, which provides a way to ‘circumvent censorship’.

Twitter has launched a Tor onion service that will give users access to its site even if it has been blocked in a country, a move that is likely in response to recent Russian social media censorship.

Twitter’s onion service will be accessible for users who have a browser such as Tor, which helps “circumvent censorship” and is encrypted to prevent tracking or surveillance, according to the Tor Project.

Future Human

Earlier this month, Russian regulators blocked access to social media sites Facebook and Twitter after the platforms placed restrictions on state-supported media such as RT and Sputnik.

But now Twitter has a link to its onion domain available on a help page showing supported browsers, which will provide a way for users in the country to access the site.

The news was shared yesterday (8 March) by software engineer Alec Muffett, who said “this is possibly the most important and long-awaited tweet that I’ve ever composed”.

Muffett said he helped Twitter’s engineers to develop the new onion service. He added that the social media site adopted the Enterprise Onion Toolkit – which Muffett developed – “albeit with considerable though reasonable modification”.

While the new service is likely in response to Russia’s censorship policies following the invasion of Ukraine, it could prove useful in the future for users in other countries hoping to bypass censorship.

“In 2014, I led the team which launched the Facebook onion; there have been occasional conversations [regarding] ‘an onion for Twitter’ ever since,” Muffett said on Twitter. “This is the result of many people’s efforts, over years, and I’d like to thank them all for their perseverance.”

The Tor Project showed support on its own Twitter page, saying that it is a vital time to help people stay connected “and .onion services help do this”.

“Onion services’ location and IP address are hidden, making it difficult for adversaries to censor them or identify their operators,” the Tor Project says on its website. “All traffic between Tor users and onion services is end-to-end encrypted, so you do not need to worry about connecting over HTTPS.”

Muffett said he made the announcement as past experience shows that large announcements can lead to “load spikes”, which “would not be wise in a time of global crisis”.

According to research from SafetyDetectives, VPN demand doubled when the decision to ban Facebook was announced. The research team found that since 24 February, demand for VPNs in Russia has increased by 462pc.

Instagram updates

While global companies continue to update services and policies in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Instagram parent company Meta has announced updates to keep citizens safe in both countries and “reduce the spread of misinformation”.

Following the company’s decision last week to demote Facebook posts from Russian state-controlled media, a similar update is being rolled out on Instagram.

“Stories that contain a link sticker pointing to a Russian state-controlled media website on Instagram will be placed lower in the Stories tray,” Meta said in a blog post. Users will also be given a notice if they are about to share something from these accounts on their Stories.

To protect citizens on both sides of the conflict, Instagram will now hide follower details for private accounts from Ukraine and Russia.

“This means that people following private accounts based in Ukraine and Russia will no longer be able to see who those accounts are following, or who follows them,” Meta said.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com