Twitter announced a Tor onion service Wednesday, ostensibly to help Russians bypass censorship in the country. Though Twitter has not directly linked the new service to actions by the Russian government, the move comes just days after reports signaled interrupted service.
The feature was created by cybersecurity researcher Alec Muffett, an evangelist for the Tor network who has reportedly been working on the service since around 2014. When announcing the .onion URL, he tweeted, “This is possibly the most important and long-awaited tweet that I’ve ever composed.”
Onion routing refers to when internet activity is encrypted and bounced between servers distributed around the world (Tor originally started as an acronym for “The Onion Router”). This allows users to access content that their ISP throttles or blocks. Twitter’s Tor service was created based on an open-source tool created by Muffett called the Enterprise Onion Toolkit.
BuzzFeed first reported that Russia blocked Twitter last Friday, which the company initially denied. “We’re aware of reports, but we don’t currently see anything significantly different from what we previously shared that would report to a block,” the platform told Protocol.
But in the days since, it’s become obvious that Russians are struggling to access the platform. Twitter confirmed as much to TechCrunch on Monday. Russian communications agency Roskomnadzor has not publicly confirmed a Twitter ban, though it has admitted to a “partial” block of Facebook.
Meta had removed Russian propaganda outlets like Russia Today, and had also began marking Russian disinformation with fact-checking labels and demoting false content. Twitter, on the other hand, has been labeling Russian state accounts and “taking enforcement action” against misleading content. The country announced a draconian new law Friday threatening journalists who share information that Russia deems “fake” about the war with jail time.
Russians have begun to protest the war, inspired by videos from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and from Ukrainians and soldiers on the front line. In addition to Tor workarounds, the demand for VPNs also has spiked in the country, showing that Russians are finding ways around the Kremlin's narrative.