Defend Internet Freedom with Tor in 2024 elections season

by ggus | February 6, 2024

The Battle for Internet Freedom in 2024

This year, with more than 65 elections happening around the world, Internet freedom may be at risk. Some organizations have called it the Year of Democracy. Simultaneously, there is a rising concern that during these many electoral processes, governments around the world will block access to the Internet in their countries. They may also censor media outlets, persecute and harass journalists, and block social media platforms and messaging apps. Under the justification of protecting national security, surveillance and online censorship can compromise and undermine the integrity, fairness, and transparency of elections.

In 2022, Access Now's Shutdown Tracker Optimization Project (STOP) and the #KeepItOn coalition recorded 187 instances of Internet censorship events across 35 countries. These events ranged from social media blocks to internet outages. In 14 of these countries, censorship events were followed by documented human rights abuses, as detailed in the Access Now annual report. Internet censorship frequently acts as an early indicator of other violations of human rights.

The Open Observatory of Network Interference - OONI has documented Internet censorship around the elections in multiple countries. Focusing on the most recent and national events during the elections, these include throttling in Kazakhstan (2023), social media blocks in Zambia (2021), a complete Internet outage in Uganda (2020), and social media block in Tanzania (2019).

In this context, where digital rights and other human rights are already under attack in many places, and these attacks could potentially be furthered by this round of elections, Tor can protect and defend our right to freely access information and express ourselves. Tor-powered apps offer a level of anonymity that protects users from surveillance, enabling them to access the internet freely and securely.

Unlike commercial VPN providers, which can also help someone to access blocked content, Tor operates as a decentralized and community-driven network. It's a non-commercial service, free and open-source, making it accessible to everyone. In countries with non-democratic regimes, governments can monitor commercial transactions they deem suspicious, including the purchase of VPNs to bypass censorship, and some VPN companies refuse to operate in areas where legality or profitability restrictions hurt their bottom line. By contrast, Tor is free for everyone, and built by a nonprofit that is guided by a mission to advance human rights--not by shareholders or money.

In most countries, people can use Tor to connect to the Internet. But, in countries where governments and Internet providers are deploying Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) and other censorship tech, they're trying to block Tor because it enables people to access their right to free access to information. For example, in China, Belarus, Egypt, Russia, Iran, Turkmenistan and other countries, users will need to use a Tor bridge in order to use Tor. For an overview about the censorship arms race, watch our co-founder Roger Dingledine's presentation at #37C3: Tor censorship attempts in Russia, Iran, Turkmenistan.

Prepare Yourself Before an Election Cycle

During this megacycle of elections, it is possible to defend yourself against online censorship and surveillance. If the elections are coming up in your country, you can prepare yourself by downloading Tor-powered apps like Tor Browser, Onion Browser, Orbot, Tails, and OnionShare. It's important to download these apps before the elections, because the censors can block these websites just before the election day. If you can't connect to Tor and suspect that it's because censors are blocking the Tor network, please contact Tor user support.

Volunteer to Defend Internet Freedom

You can help defend Internet freedom by contributing to the decentralized, community-driven nature of the Tor network. Here are some volunteer opportunities that are very important for the coming "Year of Democracy":

  • Run a Tor Snowflake proxy and promote it: Install the Snowflake browser add-on to help users from highly-censored regions to connect to Tor. With over 150,000 proxies, there is still need for more diverse and Snowflake standalone proxies. While other Tor Snowflake users will use your computer to access Tor, they won't exit to the Internet using your IP address; instead, Tor's exit nodes' IP addresses are used.

  • Run a Tor bridge: For those who are tech-savvy or want to learn about running Tor relays, the Tor Relay Operator Community page provides the guides to deploy obfs4 and WebTunnel bridges. Operators can help by running bridges before these countries elections.

It would be great if you could run bridges and Tor Snowflake during the whole year, however, if you don't have enough resources, running a bridge the week before the elections of these countries can help many users to circumvent censorship. Remember to become a part of the Tor community by joining the tor-relays mailing list, participating in the Tor Forum, following our policies, and engaging in our Matrix/IRC chat!

  • Organize Tor trainings with your community or ask us to do so: If you're part of a human rights organization based in the Global South and are concerned about online censorship and surveillance, contact us for a Tor training with your staff: Unfortunately, individual training support isn't available this year.

  • Document online censorship: Monitoring and documenting Internet censorship helps Tor developers and the anti-censorship community understand where and what piece of Internet is blocked. If you suspect that some Internet censorship is happening or Tor is blocked, OONI can provide measurements to help confirm your suspicion.

  • Advocate against Internet shutdowns: Please consider joining the #KeepItOn Coalition and share how you are personally impacted by Internet shutdowns.

Finally, defending Internet freedom is not just about preserving the integrity of elections; it's about upholding the democratic values and rights that form the foundation of societies.


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