Twitter is creating a Tor onion service, which will optimize the site for the privacy-protecting and censorship-avoiding network. Alec Muffett, a software programmer, shared the news on Twitter today, calling it “probably the most significant and long-awaited tweet I’ve ever typed.” Tor has also been added to Twitter’s list of supported browsers.
“It’s a promise from the platform to treat individuals who use Tor fairly,” Muffett said in a Twitter direct message to The Verge. “Creating an onion address is a practical move that proves that the platform is expressly catering to Tor users’ demands.”
Hidden services or “dark web” services are terms used to describe onion services, but the latter term usually refers to clearly illicit sites like the Silk Road drug market. The DuckDuckGo search engine, as well as news providers including The New York Times, the BBC, and ProPublica, all have Tor-specific versions. Tor is also used by tools like SecureDrop, which The Verge and other sites utilize to accept encrypted content.
Since 2014, Muffett, who works with businesses to deploy onion sites, has been considering the idea of a Tor-friendly Twitter. That’s when Facebook established its own hidden service, ostensibly to address major operational concerns for Tor users who were frequently mistakenly identified as botnets. In 2016, Facebook said that a million people per month used Tor to access the normal site or onion service.
To hide identifying information about users, Tor encrypts web data and passes it via a number of servers. It’s a popular technique to access censored websites, and it’s become even more essential since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, which prompted a Russian crackdown on Twitter, Facebook, and independent news services. Some internet service providers started filtering Tor in December 2021, but the Tor Project informed Vice today that the extent of censorship has varied, and Russian users may still connect via a Tor bridge.
However, Twitter’s onion service has been under development for much longer and offers benefits beyond merely accessing a prohibited network. It requires individuals to utilize Tor’s network since it doesn’t operate with regular browsers and protects them from some of the security dangers that normal web addresses bring. “If you’re using Tor Browser and click [or] enter in the precise onion address, you’ll be connected to exactly what you anticipate — or nothing at all,” Muffett continues.
Having a separate access channel also makes it easier for platforms like Facebook and Twitter to monitor criminal behavior that uses Tor (such as automated scraping or site assaults) without restricting or diminishing service for legitimate users. Even if the majority of people don’t use Tor to access Twitter, it’s a step forward for those who do.