Key Takeaways

  • Twitter’s new Tor onion helps avoid censorship and detection.
  • Twitter’s tool has been in development for years. 
  • Tor is not 100% safe, but it’s good enough.

iPhone with twitter logo on all red background

After Russia’s ban, Twitter has quickly launched its Tor onion service to allow anonymous use of the micro-blogging service.

Twitter's Tor service has been under development for some years, but the recent Russian ban kickstarted its public launch. Now, anyone can access Twitter through an anonymizing Tor browser, which has two big effects. One, it stops authorities from tracking users' use of Twitter, making it safer to access the site and to use it to disseminate and read information. Second, it lets you work around governmental blocks. 

“A connection from a regular browser may be encrypted to restrict a third-party easily accessing the content, but the connection itself is trackable or can be blocked and monitored. The Tor browser works by establishing an encrypted connection to the Tor network,” security evangelist Tony Anscombe told Lifewire via email.

The Onion Router

Tor is an acronym derived from The Onion Router. It’s a voluntary network of more than 6,000 computers around the world that relays your internet traffic through many layers to hide your location and stops anyone from knowing which websites you visit.

"The Tor browser works by establishing an encrypted connection to the Tor network; traffic is then routed through several random servers within the network before eventually transitioning onto the public internet, with the final relay becoming the requester of access to the service," said Anscombe.

It’s an important tool for avoiding surveillance and censorship, but it is more of a privacy guard than full protection. Both UK and US national security services have targeted Tor in the past, although with mixed success.

Tor is used by journalists and activists, but when a government attempts to cut off access to outside news sources, it also becomes useful for regular users, letting them stay in touch with more neutral news sources.

Twitter’s Tor

But why does Twitter need to be involved at all? Can't you just browse Twitter's website using a Tor browser? You could indeed, but this still requires a standard internet connection at the other end of the Tor network, a connection that could be traced. Twitter's new tool provides a direct link, instead. 

"However, there is still the hop from the Tor network onto the public network that requires resolution of a website address; through DNS," says Anscombe. "This can now be avoided by using the new Twitter Onion address. This is specific and direct, requiring no resolution over a public network."

street pole with a 'big data is watching you' sticker on it

Twitter’s Tor plans began long ago. In 2014, Twitter’s network security engineer Alec Muffet led the team that created Facebook’s onion. “There have been occasional conversations re: ‘an onion for Twitter’ ever since,” says Muffet on Twitter. 

What’s In It for Twitter?

This makes perfect sense for users. Twitter is a great way to publicly share information quickly. Anonymizing this is not only good for escaping the grip of various political regimes, but it’s also good for whistleblowers, journalists, and anyone else who doesn’t want to be traced. It applies to everyone.

But why does Twitter care? One reason might be that it really does care about freedom of speech and wants to use its platform to foster that. It might be a huge global mega-company, but it’s also a Californian tech company, and that tends to be all about free speech and the like, even when it’s not such a great idea. 

… it stops authorities from tracking users’ use of Twitter, making it safer to access the site…

Another answer is that Twitter is a global publishing platform and wants to keep it that way. This release may have been prompted by Russia's recent internet blocks, but Twitter's Tor also opens up, or safeguards, micro-publishing in all oppressive regimes. It makes Twitter more accessible and also more valuable as a communication tool. 

“This move also allows users in other countries with censorship to [circumvent government censorship], so it affects more than just Russia,” Jamie Knight, CEO of tech news publisher Data Source Hub, told Lifewire via email. “Is this an across-the-board stand against dictatorships that limit the freedom of expression around the world? Nothing in Twitter’s official statement hints at that. But then again, Twitter may just be protecting its own interests by ensuring the greatest number of users on its platform.”

In the end, it doesn't really matter. Free speech is free speech, whatever the reasons for enabling it.