BBC points Russians to the Tor version of itself

Back to the future with short wave radio, plus Russia drop internet Iron Curtain

Russia has reportedly blocked access to Western media outlets including the BBC to netizens within its borders, as suspicions rise that the country has begun implementing a "splinternet" plan to seal itself off from the wider internet.

This morning the British state broadcaster declared it had been blocked from inside Russia, using also-blocked Twitter to spread the news among Westerners, and signposted web users to a long-forgotten Tor mirror of itself. The BBC launched two new shortwave frequencies in the region earlier this week to broadcast four hours of World Service English news a day. These frequencies can be received clearly in Kyiv and parts of Russia.

The Beeb is not alone; other Western news outlets including Germany's Deutsche Welle, Voice of America, US-sponsored Radio Free Europe and others have also been blocked.

Although the Reuters financial newswire cited an order of Roskomnadzor, the Russian equivalent of Britain's Ofcom media regulator, the Roskomnadzor blocked site checker returned no information about BBC.com when checked by The Register at the time of writing.

El Reg's own connectivity tests, as well as those of informed sources, suggested that the block had genuinely been implemented, however.

A Russian government spokesman told Reuters: "Access has been restricted to a host of information resources owned by foreigners."

Roskomnadzor's "news" page is full of demands for mainly US-owned social media sites to stop blocking Russian news and disinformation agencies such as Russia Today (RT).

Yesterday the agency also complained that YouTube ads intended "to misinform the Russian internet audience" were not "age-labelled," something that apparently breaks local Russian law. (Russia's main reason for blocking Western news websites is because President Vladimir Putin doesn't want his population knowing that he's started a war in their name.)

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Hosted at https://www.bbcnewsd73hkzno2ini43t4gblxvycyac5aw4gnv7t2rccijh7745uqd.onion/, the BBC's block-busting Tor domain appears to be a straight copy of the BBC.com homepage. The site was set up in 2019; the domain at the link above will only work with the Tor browser.

Similarly, the BBC press office urged netizens to spread the word about Tor and open source VPN Psiphon.

Russia's response to this open censorship avoidance call, if any, will be instructive. Although the BBC's Tor mirror of its clearnet operation had largely been forgotten by the wider world since its launch, this is the precise use-case that Tor's creators envisaged: keeping information flowing in spite of state censorship efforts.

While the Beeb coyly labelled its site as being on the "deep web", it is in fact on what the state broadcaster has previously called the "dark web" – that is, the same "dark web" used by Russia-aligned ransomware gangs and similar online criminals to host their leak blogs.

Tor is designed to frustrate censorship by bouncing user traffic through a number of relay nodes, disguising its true origins and destinations. Should the Russians try and shut down Western Tor-hosted websites, they're likely to fail – but previous efforts to arrest local exit node operators have borne some fruit.

Tor exit relays have long been a target, not only for law enforcement agencies in the West as well as authoritarian countries, but also those who would log and track exit node users – and, inevitably, cryptocurrency scammers.

Digital balkanisation

As for Russia's wider internet blocking ambitions, while concrete facts are hard to come by, Russia and similarly-minded authoritarian countries have been quietly building so-called splinternets – local firewalled versions of the internet – for years. Also labelled "digital Balkanisation", Russia's version is known as Runet. Work started on Runet in 2014, culminating in a full-scale test in 2019.

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The Runet project is being overseen by Natalya Kasperskaya – cofounder of the antivirus company that bears her married name, as well as ex-wife of its CEO Eugene. The idea behind Runet is that internet-dependent services in Russia can continue functioning while non-Russian resources are blocked altogether. So far there is conflicting evidence about whether the Runet switch has been thrown – tests carried out this morning by El Reg showed landing pages for the Google Play Store and Apple Store were both accessible, while mil-dot-ru (the Russian Ministry of Defence) was inaccessible from an unfiltered internet connection in London.

If Russia does enable Runet, not only will its population immediately notice loss of connectivity with Western-hosted services, they will also have to turn to Tor – a modern form of samizdat – for reliable news and information. At which point it might not only be the BBC deploying Tor mirrors of news websites. ®

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