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Twitter embraces the dark web to bypass Russia’s ban

March 10, 2022, 4:30 PM UTC

Twitter has unveiled a “dark web” version of its service, so people in Russia can access it without being found out by the authorities.

In doing so, Twitter has joined other companies and organizations such as Facebook and the BBC, which have for some years offered such versions of their sites for people in heavily surveilled, censorship-happy societies such as China and Iran.

The term “dark web” refers to encrypted networks whose content is unlisted by search engines such as Google, and that can only be accessed through special software, most commonly the Tor Browser, which is backed by U.S. and Swedish government funding.

The Tor Browser can be used to surf the regular web with extra privacy; because it bounces the user’s traffic through a bunch of “relay” connections, it makes it practically impossible for authorities to monitor what the user is doing. (“Tor” stands for The Onion Router, in a nod to how the network’s architecture resembles the layers of an onion.)

But using the dark web through Tor—that is, visiting websites that have the “.onion” suffix—adds even more security, because it avoids having to send traffic through “exit relay” nodes that can, in some cases, be compromised by censors or spies.

Putin’s crackdown

Vladimir Putin’s regime was already stepping up Web censorship and surveillance in the years leading up to his invasion of Ukraine, but the Kremlin has really cracked down since it went to war.

It ordered the blockage of Twitter on the day Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and the Russian information regulator Roskomnadzor last week confirmed the service was blocked, along with Facebook.

Twitter’s move will provide “greater privacy, integrity, trust and ‘unblockability’ for people all around the world who use [it] to communicate,” tweeted Alec Muffett, who helped Twitter’s engineers embrace the dark web.

Muffett, a veteran cybersecurity engineer and digital rights activist, helped Facebook to launch its .onion address back in 2014, when he worked for the company. He went on to do the same for the New York Times in 2017 and for the BBC (which is also currently blocked in Russia) in 2019.

Other notable organizations that have dark-web sites include the CIA, Deutsche Welle, the Brave and DuckDuckGo search engines, and the Tor Project itself: Russia blocked the project’s website at the tail end of last year, in an attempt to stop Russians from being able to circumvent an ever-expanding list of officially blocked websites and services by downloading the Tor Browser.

“There have been occasional conversations re: ‘an onion for Twitter’ ever since” Facebook’s 2014 move, Muffett tweeted on Tuesday. “This is the result of many people’s efforts, over years, and I’d like to thank them all for their perseverance.”

However, while Russia’s mania for online control is only matched by countries like China, Vietnam, and Iran, it would be a mistake to think it’s the only side opting for censorship in this Ukraine-centered information war.

Pressure on Google

For a start, Ukraine itself blocked Russian social media services such as VKontakte and Odnoklassniki, as well as Yandex (the “Russian Google”), in a 2017 decree that irked free-speech advocates. And now, similarly motivated by a desire to fight Russian propaganda, the European Union is also taking a heavy-handed approach.

Last week, the EU got Facebook, Twitter, [hotlink]YouTube,[/hotlink] and TikTok to all ban Russian state media accounts, such as those for the RT and Sputnik propaganda organs. European TV services can also no longer carry RT’s and Sputnik’s channels.

But this week it emerged that the European Commission had also ordered Google to stop listing RT’s and Sputnik’s services on its search results in the EU. What’s more, social-media firms have to delete people’s posts if they reproduce any of RT’s or Sputnik’s content—which involves a temporary relaxation of a decades-old EU rule that forbids online platforms from generally monitoring everything their users upload.

Delisting is not unprecedented in Europe—the EU’s “right to be forgotten” privacy rule regularly forces Google to scrub its results, and France last year forced the delisting of U.S. e-commerce platform Wish over product safety concerns—but this latest order has nonetheless raised eyebrows.

TJ McIntyre, an associate professor at the UCD Sutherland School of Law in Dublin, tweeted that the Commission’s move could raise “significant proportionality issues and freedom of expression issues.” He also pointed out that the EU’s General Court—which handles complaints against Commission decisions—might have something to say about the matter when it hears RT’s challenge against the EU broadcasting ban.

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