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In theory, not only are Tor users, who explore the Internet through Onion networks How To Find Active Onion Sites & Why You Might Want To How To Find Active Onion Sites & Why You Might Want To Onion sites, so named because they end with ".onion", are hosted as Tor hidden services – a completely anonymous way to host websites. They're part of the deep Web – an invisible part of the... Read More , able to visit all the pages a typical user can, but they also enjoy added benefits including searching the Deep Web.

The important thing about Tor Really Private Browsing: An Unofficial User’s Guide to Tor Really Private Browsing: An Unofficial User’s Guide to Tor Tor provides truly anonymous and untraceable browsing and messaging, as well as access to the so called “Deep Web”. Tor can’t plausibly be broken by any organization on the planet. Read More is anonymity. But new research suggests users are either being blocked outright or have to jump through additional hoops on many sites.

What’s Happening?

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Users of Onion networks What Is Onion Routing, Exactly? [MakeUseOf Explains] What Is Onion Routing, Exactly? [MakeUseOf Explains] Internet privacy. Anonymity was one of the greatest features of the Internet in its youth (or one of its worst features, depending on who you ask). Leaving aside the sorts of problems that spring forth... Read More are being penalised for wanting an extra level of encryption, of security, and of anonymity, according to a recent research paper.

The Universities of Cambridge and California-Berkeley, University College London, and International Computer Science Institute-Berkeley published their findings as Do You See What I See? Differential Treatment of Anonymous Users, focusing on how some 2 million daily users of Tor are treated.

It’s something annoyed users have complained about in the past, but this study is the first of note to confirm that 3.67% of the top 1,000 Alexa sites (a service that analyses web traffic data) block anyone trying to access them via a known Tor exit node.

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If you’re unfamiliar with Onion networks, they essentially let you surf anonymously by relaying your requests through proxy servers that further encrypt your data at each step. The exit node is the final step, the last router that allows you onto the Deep web.

Except users are finding that they’re faced with a substandard service from some websites, CAPTCHAs and other such nuisances from others, and in further cases, are denied access completely. The researchers argue that this:

“[D]egraded service [results in Tor users] effectively being relegated to the role of second-class citizens on the Internet.”

Two good examples of prejudice hosting and content delivery firms are CloudFlare and Akamai — the latter of which either blocks Tor users or, in the case of Macys.com, infinitely redirects. CloudFlare, meanwhile, presents CAPTCHA to prove the user isn’t a malicious bot. It identifies large amounts of traffic from an exit node, then assigns a score to an IP address that determines whether the server has a good or bad reputation.

This means that innocent users are treated the same way as those with negative intentions, just because they happen to use the same exit node. A Tor user complained:

“[CloudFlare doesn’t] appear open to working together in open dialog, they actively make it nearly impossible to browse to certain websites, they collude with larger surveillance companies (like Google), their CAPTCHAs are awful, they block members of our community on social media rather than engaging with them and frankly, they run untrusted code in millions of browsers on the web for questionable security gains.”

Why You Might Want Anonymity

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To understand why some sites frown on anonymity, we have to look at the positives of it too. Not to preach to the choir here, but sometimes, you need to stay anonymous Can You Really Be Anonymous Online? Can You Really Be Anonymous Online? We all have things we'd rather not tell the world about. I think it's time we clear up a few things about anonymity online -- and answer once and for all, whether it's really possible. Read More . Researchers point out that:

“[Anonymity networks] often provide the only means for citizens to access or distribute censored or restricted content without a threat to their privacy or even safety.”

Anyone can create a Tor site or server How to Create a Hidden Service Tor Site to Set Up an Anonymous Website or Server How to Create a Hidden Service Tor Site to Set Up an Anonymous Website or Server Tor is an anonymous, secure network that allows anyone to access websites with anonymity. People normally use Tor to access normal websites, but they don’t have to. If you want to set up your own... Read More . It’s not easy, but you could.

The Deep web — and the Dark web in particular — is increasingly thought of as something sinister, and indeed, illegal trades flourish, including identity fraud Here's How Much Your Identity Could Be Worth on the Dark Web Here's How Much Your Identity Could Be Worth on the Dark Web It's uncomfortable to think of yourself as a commodity, but all of your personal details, from name and address to bank account details, are worth something to online criminals. How much are you worth? Read More , drugs, and taboo porn. ISIS are even using it The War Against ISIS Online - Is Your Security At Risk? The War Against ISIS Online - Is Your Security At Risk? Anonymous claim to be targeting ISIS websites, alerting many to the fact that the terrorists have an online presence. But how are they being fought? And what should you do if you discover ISIS online? Read More in an attempt to hide their identities. The media’s attitude, as with most things, is “what have you got to hide?” But it’s certainly not all bad.

PRISM What Is PRISM? Everything You Need to Know What Is PRISM? Everything You Need to Know The National Security Agency in the US has access to whatever data you're storing with US service providers like Google Microsoft, Yahoo, and Facebook. They're also likely monitoring most of the traffic flowing across the... Read More ; why emails can never be secure Why Email Can't Be Protected From Government Surveillance Why Email Can't Be Protected From Government Surveillance “If you knew what I know about email, you might not use it either,” said the owner of secure email service Lavabit as he recently shut it down. "There is no way to do encrypted... Read More from Big Brother; the UK’s Snooper’s Charter How Britain's "Snoopers' Charter" Might Affect You How Britain's "Snoopers' Charter" Might Affect You British Prime Minister David Cameron intends to resurrect the "Snooper's Charter", a privacy-breaching set of new measures to enable enhanced monitoring of communications by the security services. Can it be stopped? Read More : Staying off-the-grid certainly sounds a fine idea when faced with this degree of state surveillance…

You might be trying to operate around repressive countries’ Internet blocks How To Quickly Check If Your Site Is Visible Behind The Great Firewall Of China How To Quickly Check If Your Site Is Visible Behind The Great Firewall Of China The Great Firewall of China, officially known as the Golden Shield project, uses a variety of methods to block foreign websites that the Chinese government doesn’t like. The Chinese government doesn’t publish a list of... Read More , trying to dodge DRM copyright What Is DRM & Why Does It Exist If It's So Evil? [MakeUseOf Explains] What Is DRM & Why Does It Exist If It's So Evil? [MakeUseOf Explains] Digital Rights Management is the latest evolution of copy protection. It’s the biggest cause of user frustration today, but is it justified? Is DRM a necessary evil in this digital age, or is the model... Read More and read ebooks 6 Little-Known Corners Of The Deep Web You Might Actually Like 6 Little-Known Corners Of The Deep Web You Might Actually Like The deep web has a bad reputation—just about every bad thing you can think of is available there. But there are also some really great things you might want to check out. Read More , or even researching something the Surface web doesn’t like Journey Into The Hidden Web: A Guide For New Researchers Journey Into The Hidden Web: A Guide For New Researchers This manual will take you on a tour through the many levels of the deep web: databases and information available in academic journals. Finally, we’ll arrive at the gates of Tor. Read More .

Take Anonymous itself. The hacktivists aim to make society safer — anonymously. It means that people can make a stand without getting unwanted attention. Sometimes it backfires, but most of the time, altruism wins out.

Why Are Tor Users Becoming Victims?

On the flipside of the coin, however, some want to stay hidden due to nefarious purposes, and that’s what sites blocking users are trying to address.

Those running the sites want their visitors to be accountable for their actions: for what they do, and for what they say on the Internet. Government and public-funded sites — including the European Central Bank, senate.gov, and the US Mint — largely deny Tor users access, for example. Nonetheless, in many such cases, like healthcare.gov, visitors using the everyday “Surface” web are immediately asked to register their email address (although not doing so doesn’t prohibit the use of the site in general).

You could argue blocking anonymous commenters is a way of combating trolls; creating fake profiles for abusive reasons — sextortion Sextortion Has Evolved And It's Scarier Than Ever Sextortion Has Evolved And It's Scarier Than Ever Sextortion is an abhorrent, prevalent blackmailing technique targeting young and old, and is now even more intimidating thanks to social networks like Facebook. What can you do to protect yourself from these seedy cybercriminals? Read More , grooming, cyberbullying 5 Websites That Help Parents & Children Deal With Bullying Or Cyberbullying 5 Websites That Help Parents & Children Deal With Bullying Or Cyberbullying For years bullying had been thought of as a necessary rite of passage to adulthood. If bullying is a devil’s trait, then we as concerned citizens and parents can play protectors. Educating ourselves about how... Read More — has just become illegal in the UK, and while Tor users aren’t completely untraceable, it would make work harder for trackers.

Blocking Onion networks isn’t solely about comments, though. It’s also in a bid to protect the site’s services.

Hulu blocks anyone using Tor exit nodes, and when one user complained to them, the response was:

“Tor’s mostly used for pirating, that’s the main reason we’re against it as a company.”

You may argue this is counter-productive, but to lift the block, you still have to go through a lengthy process in order to be “whitelisted.”

If a site sees bad traffic from one IP address, they’re understandably going to block it, even if that means excluding benign Tor users too. That’s a fair prerogative, especially if it avoids cyberattacks such as Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) What Is a DDoS Attack? [MakeUseOf Explains] What Is a DDoS Attack? [MakeUseOf Explains] The term DDoS whistles past whenever cyber-activism rears up its head en-masse. These kind of attacks make international headlines because of multiple reasons. The issues that jumpstart those DDoS attacks are often controversial or highly... Read More compromises, the like of which Moonfruit recently suffered What Other Major Websites Can Learn from Moonfruit's DDoS Attack What Other Major Websites Can Learn from Moonfruit's DDoS Attack Moonfruit is the latest in a long list of online giants hit by hackers, but how they handled the threat was impressive. Indeed, other sites could learn a lot from how they handled the situation. Read More .

What Can You Do About It?

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Unfortunately, there’s not a great deal you can do. However, many are turning to Tor’s “Don’t Block Me” project, which describes itself as:

“A gathering of affected user communities, the internet at large, TPO speakers, and the central Tor themes and use cases around the ListOfServicesBlockingTor in order to encourage these sites to stop blocking people merely for using Tor. This project also develops, documents, and promotes Best Practices for services to use instead of indiscriminately blocking Tor as a whole. Another subproject works to remove Relays from RBL and other blocklists.”

It’s not futile: while commenting and account sign-up are still not allowed, the popular gaming site, GameFAQs lifted the block on Onion networks. CloudFlare are also reportedly considering removing CAPTCHAs and other hurdles.

It’s worth finding out and further supporting those sites that are part of the “We Support Tor” campaign.

Do you blame sites for wanting to protect themselves against bad-intentioned Tor users? Would you do the same? And what else can be done to both include anyone using Onion networks, and keep services safer from anonymous attacks?

Image Credits: stressed businessman by Marcos Mesa Sam Wordley via Shutterstock, Onions by Global Panorama; Camp Anonymous by Jagz Mario; and Commercialization by Kevin Wong.

  1. Lyly Gray
    November 27, 2016 at 10:30 pm

    I run a roleplaying site. When people are banned for attacking other members, cyberbullying, and breaking the site's TOS, they use Tor to get around the blocking and continue harassing people. Yeah, I'm one of the sites actively looking to ban Tor exit nodes. I shouldn't have to spend weeks chasing down an a**hole who can't follow the rules, just because Tor allows him to be anonymous. Does this mean some legitimate users might get caught in the crossfire? Sure. Is it worth letting the majority run rampant posting illegal things and attacking people? Nope.

  2. fcd76218
    March 8, 2016 at 7:03 pm

    Let's not be naive. The major reason CloudFlare, Akamai, et.al. are against TOR is contained in the sentence "It would make work harder for trackers." They feel that it is their, and their customers', constitutional right to collect any possible data on Internet users. These companies cannot abide the fact that some users have the chutzpah and the ability to not allow data collection.

    • Philip Bates
      March 31, 2016 at 6:14 pm

      Yes, you're right there - I didn't mean to overlook that aspect. Certainly sites would want to stop anything that infringes on profits via collection of data. It's not like services are admitting to that angle, but you've definitely got a good point.

  3. df
    March 8, 2016 at 5:00 pm

    If it keeps people out of the dark web and finally brings and end to it then I am sorry for Tor Users but the Dark web has to go.

    • fcd76218
      March 8, 2016 at 7:13 pm

      Sorry but it will have the opposite effect. It will lead to the Dark Web going even deeper underground and better anonymizing methods than TOR being developed. The best way to popularize something, especially in the US, is to tell people that they are not allowed to do it. If it wasn't for the Prohibition, Organized Crime would not have gotten so well organized and Al Capone, Bugs Moran, Frank Nitti, etc. would have remained penny-ante crooks.

    • Philip Bates
      March 31, 2016 at 6:08 pm

      I think users who want to stay private will always find a way; certainly anyone who frequents the Dark Web would just use smarter techniques. fcd76218 is right.

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