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Tor Project Mounts Legal Challenge to Oppose Russian Blocking

In an effort to control what its citizens can access on the internet, over the past several years Russian authorities have stepped up their blocking and censorship efforts.

Some initiatives, such as the blocking of websites and URLs to reduce copyright infringement, are commonplace outside Russia but local authorities have also begun defining additional content categories, including some political dissent, as illegal. As a result, not only is this content blocked by ISPs but those who provide means to unblock it can also find themselves on the wrong side of the law.

This has sucked some VPN providers into the debate and after they failed to comply, Russia blocked them too, with the inevitable fallout and collateral damage.

Tor Becomes the Next ‘Logical’ Target

In the weeks leading up to the new year, reports indicated that Russia was taking action against Tor nodes, most likely by deploying the same Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) system it previously used to throttle Twitter and to silence the Smart Voting website developed by jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny.

The efforts didn’t appear to affect the whole of Russia but many ISPs were affected. Soon after, Russian politicians began openly criticizing Tor as a tool for criminals, with one going as far as labeling it “an “absolute evil”. Soon after, problems hit the Tor Project’s main domain.

Following a warning from local telecoms watchdog Roscomnadzor supported by a decision from the Saratov District Court dating back to 2017, Russian authorities ordered local ISPs to block

Fighting Back

Since then, Tor supporters have been working to mitigate the blocking measures, which include attacks on Tor bridges or relays that are not listed in the public Tor directory.

This cat and mouse game could go indefinitely so in the meantime, the Tor Project has decided to take legal action in Russia to contest the blockade.

In partnership with digital rights activists at Roskomsvoboda, an organization that champions privacy, anonymity, freedom of information and prohibition of censorship, on January 11, 2022, The Tor Project, Inc. filed an appeal at the Saratov District Court against Russia’s blocking measures.

Without naming any specific content at all, Russia says it took action to prevent access to Tor’s “anonymizing browser” in order to restrict access to sites that host content included in the “Federal List of Extremist Materials”.

Roskomsvoboda believes that the Court acted illegally and the order should be overturned.

“Order Violates Constitutional Rights”

According to the digital freedoms group, the decision of the Court should be canceled on the basis that it violates the constitutional right to freely provide, receive and disseminate information and protect privacy. The blocking decision was also handed down without the participation of Tor representatives, which violated their procedural rights and the fairness of the process.

“The decision of the court is contrary to the law and already established practice. According to the position of the Supreme Court, any decision made without the participation of the owner of the site is unjust and violates the rights of this owner,” says Roskomsvoboda legal representative Sarkis Darbinyan.

“In addition, we have the decision of the ECtHR [European Court of Human Rights] in the Engels v. Russia case, which states that blocking a technical network tool is no different from trying to restrict access to printers and photocopiers, since they can also be used to reproduce extremist materials.”

Tor Project Executive Director Isabela Bageros is hopeful that the process in Russia, which began with the filing of an appeal on January 11, 2022, will lead to a positive outcome both for Tor and Russian netizens.

“With the help of Roskomsvoboda lawyers Sarkis Darbinyan and Ekaterina Abashina, we will appeal the court decision and hope to correct this situation and help create a precedent for the protection of digital rights in Russia,” Bageros says.

Separately, Russian telecoms watchdog Roscomnadzor, which oversees blocking in Russia, sent a complaint to YouTube this week demanding the restoration of two channels operated by a music group and a local radio station that were suspended by YouTube due to copyright infringement complaints.

“Roscomnadzor believes that such actions on the part of the YouTube video hosting administration violate the key principles of the free distribution of information, unimpeded access to it, and are an act of censorship, which is prohibited under the Russian Constitution,” the watchdog said.

The joint Tor/Roskomsvoboda campaign website can be found here

From: TF, for the latest news on copyright battles, piracy and more.

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