The Russian government may have blocked Twitter earlier this month, but now users in the country might have another way to bypass that censorship and access the social network. On Tuesday, a cybersecurity expert announced that they had helped implement an official Tor onion service version of Twitter, meaning that Russian users should be able to use the Tor anonymity network to reach the site.
The site stands to be one of the most significant Tor onion services ever launched, given that it comes during the invasion of Ukraine and Russia’s aggressive clamping down on access to social networks and independent media.
“This is possibly the most important and long-awaited tweet that I’ve ever composed,” Alec Muffett, the cybersecurity expert and designer of the Enterprise Onion Toolkit, which makes deploying Tor onion services easier, tweeted on Tuesday. “On behalf of Twitter, I am delighted to announce their new Tor Project onion service.”
The address for the Tor version of Twitter is https://twitter3e4tixl4xyajtrzo62zg5vztmjuricljdp2c5kshju4avyoid.onion. Users will need to have the Tor Browser or another version of Tor installed to access the site.
Do you know about any other digital censorship around the invasion of Ukraine? We'd love to hear from you. Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Joseph Cox securely on Signal on +44 20 8133 5190, Wickr on josephcox, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Making our service more accessible is an ongoing priority for us,” a Twitter spokesperson told Motherboard in an email. They pointed to Twitter’s “supported browsers” page, which now includes a link to the onion service.
Tor’s anonymity network routes a user’s internet connection through a selection of different servers, run mostly by volunteers, around the world. Whereas a virtual private network generally only consists of one proxy server—or one ‘hop’—Tor uses three different relays before touching the public internet. The network allows users to browse the internet mostly anonymously, with websites not being able to determine the true physical location that people are visiting their site from, nor entities monitoring internet traffic such as internet service providers or potentially state security services being able to see what sites users are accessing.
Because Tor may route a user’s traffic outside of their country they are currently in, the network can allow people to access content that is blocked by their domestic internet service providers or other forms of censorship.
Tor also offers onion services, which are essentially websites that are designed to more efficiently work within the Tor network, while also providing additional anonymity protections. This now includes the new onion service version of Twitter.
The onion service version of Twitter. Image: Motherboard.
Whether users in Russia will be able to access the Tor version of Twitter depends more on the availability of Tor generally in Russia. So far in March, 12.77 percent of Tor relay users were originally connecting from Russia, according to data maintained by the Tor Project.
“As far as we can say, if someone is able to connect to the Tor network, they
should be able to use this onion service. Censorship against Tor has been
varied in Russia at the moment since it started in December 2021. Some ISPs
blocking the network, some ISPs not,” the Tor Project told Motherboard in an email. They added that they have asked people to test whether they can access the Tor version of Twitter from inside Russia.
When governments block access to the Tor network, users can sometimes still access it via the use of a ‘bridge’. A bridge is essentially another Tor relay that is not publicly known, and so may be harder to block.
The Tor version of Twitter stands to be significant because of the vital role the site has played in distributing news, images, and video around the invasion of Ukraine. Russia blocked access to Twitter and Facebook on Friday.
Twitter told TechCrunch in a statement on Monday that “We’re aware of reports that people are increasingly having difficulty accessing Twitter in Russia. We’re investigating and working to fully restore access to our service.”
Facebook launched its own Tor version in 2014. In one month in 2016, the number of people connecting to the onion service exceeded 1 million visitors, the company announced at the time.
Update: This piece has been updated to include a response from the Tor Project and Twitter, as well as a second statement from Twitter.