Is Tor Legal? Can You Use Tor Browser Safely in 2023?
- In most countries worldwide, it’s perfectly legal to use Tor browser for anonymous browsing.
- While Tor is a good tool for browsing the web anonymously, you can still be tracked when using the onion browser. Exit node monitoring, malware, faulty software, and other threats can compromise your anonymity.
- It’s best to use a VPN with Tor for maximum online safety and privacy. A VPN with strong security features will ensure your encrypted connection is safe and private.
Tor, or The Onion Router, is a free, community-driven software intended for anonymous web browsing. Although its 100% anonymity claim is debatable, it is still one of the most effective ways to access the internet freely. This has boosted its popularity in recent years. Today, everyone from regular web users to journalists to activists to corporate professionals uses Tor to browse the web without revealing their web location or identity.
But this popularity brings up an obvious question: Is Tor illegal?
No, Tor is not illegal. It’s legal software that you can safely download and install. However, if you use it for illegal content such as drugs, piracy, cybercrime, and financial fraud, it can get you in trouble. In other words, using Tor for unlawful means will make your action illegal.
To reiterate, the Tor Browser or any of Tor Project’s applications are 100% legal. You can use them to safeguard your online privacy for free. But, as you can see, there’s a thin line between their legal and illegal applications. So, let’s take some time today to understand the legality of Tor and a few of its use cases.
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What Makes the Tor Network Legal?
Before I dive into the use cases, it’s important to understand how and why Tor is not illegal. It’s because Tor is meant for anonymous communication, which is not explicitly illegal in many parts of the world. Using software to hide your IP address and become near-anonymous does not fall under a legal lens. At least in the USA and other developed and free countries.
In contrast, consider illegal software like Popcorn Time and YouTube Vanced. They exist as a way to stream pirated movies and stream YouTube songs respectively. Both these actions are illegal in their own regard.
To borrow another example, we all know that using BitTorrent for peer-to-peer file sharing is legal. What makes it illegal is the practice of downloading copyrighted content. Similarly, you can use Tor free of charge, as the Tor browser is an open-source product run by volunteers.
Tor anonymizes your online traffic through a proxy server network. This act in itself is not illegal. It is what you do with your anonymous connection that brings the question of legality. This article will hence focus on common Tor applications that fall on either side of the legal spectrum.
Legal Use Cases of Tor Browser
Tor users can use the Tor browser for many legitimate and legal purposes. Here’s a list of some of the most common legitimate applications of the Tor Browser:
- Communicating Anonymously – Tor’s most popular use (among general web users) is anonymous web surfing, instant messaging, and social networking. Tor’s exit nodes (relays) scramble your web traffic and hide your IP address, making it difficult for anyone to trace you or analyze your Internet traffic.
- Using Onion Services – A popular legal use of The Onion Router is to access certain “hidden services”, more commonly known as onion services. These are platforms that are only accessible via the Tor browser, and are so to maintain online anonymity. Platforms across categories such as commerce, entertainment, news, and communication exist. ProtonMail is a popular example of an onion service, although it can also be accessed without the Tor browser.
- Privacy Protection – If you reside in a country with strict cyber laws, you can safely use the Tor network to protect your privacy online and avoid network surveillance. This is similar to anonymous web communication but largely involves activities such as streaming, surfing the web, and general web consumption.
- Accessing the Dark Web – Darknet or the dark web is often associated with illegal activities. However, you can still explore this underground web for legal uses such as private software, video games, and decentralized networks, including blockchain currencies like Bitcoin.
- Blockchain Access – Carrying out blockchain transactions including in cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin via Tor falls in a gray area but is largely considered legal. Since cryptocurrencies are now widely adopted around the world, using The Onion Router to mine or deal in crypto is a safe, legitimate use of the Tor browser.
- Avoiding Online Tracking – While avoiding surveillance is part of the use cases listed above, avoiding tracking from websites and advertisers is another great problem that Tor solves. When you use Tor and the onion network, advertisers find it hard to create an accurate picture of yours using the demographic and other data.
- Testing Without Online Surveillance – Many cybersecurity experts take advantage of this perk and perform security testing on the dark web without being tracked. There are tons of free resources researchers can explore on the dark web.
Illegal Use Cases of Tor Browser
As the Tor browser offers online anonymity, it’s easy to see why some users might want to use it to hide illegal activities. With that in mind, from a user’s perspective, it’s arguably even more important to pay attention to the illegitimate applications of Tor. Here are the most common illegal activities Tor is used for:
- Sharing Illegal Content – Sending or receiving illegal or copyrighted content over the web through the Tor browser can make you a target of your country’s law enforcement. These include both digital and physical content such as pirated films and albums, pornography, malware, drugs, and other restricted substances. An example would be paying an anonymous seller via Tor in return for a drug substance in your locality.
- Privacy Protection – In some countries with strict government surveillance, using a software to hide your IP address may be considered illegal. For example, countries like Egypt, China, Belarus, North Korea, Iraq, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates have some form of a legal framework that discourages anonymous communication over the web.
- Censorship Circumvention – Similar to hiding one’s online privacy, knowingly bypassing government-regulated censorship and getting caught can land you in serious legal trouble. For instance, China routinely prosecutes citizens who protest against its cyber laws and the Great Firewall and access global platforms like Twitter (which is banned in the country).
- Whistleblowing – Journalists actively use Tor to protect their privacy and lives while reporting, but they occasionally use it to share the news that sometimes breaks the laws or related pacts and contracts. This may or may not be considered illegal, but historically speaking, whistleblowing does have legal ramifications. Edward Snowden famously used Tor to share classified details with the press in 2013.
- Financial Fraud – Using fake credit cards found on the dark web, creating bogus bank accounts, and exchanging currency via Tor can also fall under the gamut of illegal activities. For example, using Tor to create a fake digital bank account based in another country is illegal.
As you can see, more than one application is categorized as both legal and illegal. Therefore, the thing that makes an activity illegal is its intrinsic nature. If you feel the activity is unlawful – using Tor or not – it’s best to avoid doing it.
Whistleblowing is considered illegal, but according to free speech activists, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EEF), it falls under a journalist’s rights and responsibilities. In fact, the EEF endorses Tor as useful software for the ordinary public against surveillance.
Tor is also used for credit card fraud, defamation, cybercrime, and arms dealing that are intrinsically illegal. I haven’t mentioned them along with the use cases as they are also uncommon.
As an easy rule of thumb, avoid using Tor for doing something that you would otherwise not do due to legal consequences. If you stick with this simple rule of thumb, you can use Tor and access dark web sites without any worries. That brings me to the next obvious question.
Can you get in trouble for using Tor?
If you use the Tor browser legally to surf the web, make secure communication, or access geo-restricted content, you won’t get in any legal trouble. These are all legitimate online activities that most countries with Internet freedom don’t object to.
However, you can be at risk if you use Tor browser to engage in illegal activities such as downloading pirated content, engaging in drugs or arms deals, or doing financial fraud. Tor’s entry and exit nodes will still hide your tracks but it may invite legal trouble if you get caught by the police.
If the question is simply about using Tor as software, the answer is still no in most parts of the world. Using Tor is not against the law. In countries where cyber laws specifically discourage anonymity and encryption systems like Tor and VPNs, you may be well advised to not use this software.
In my professional experience, there have been no widespread actions reported by general Tor users. However, Tor exit-node operators have faced legal wrath in several parts of the world including the United States, Austria, and Germany.
While worrying at first glance, the reality is that none of these matters to general users like you and me. (Boing Boing has a cool example of getting an FBI subpoena related to Tor, if you’re interested.)
Is it Legal to Access the Dark Web Using Tor?
Yes, it is legal to access the dark web using Tor as long as you don’t commit a crime. The case for the dark web is the same as that for Tor which I described in the sections above.
If you open your laptop tomorrow, connect to the Tor network, and access a dark web marketplace like AlphaBay, you will not be questioned. What you do next will decide if you tread beyond the line of legality.
For example, if you were to use Tor to buy something from an illegal arms dealer via this marketplace, you would most likely be committing an illegitimate activity. Such an act is unlawful in most parts of the world.
Illegal Activities on the Dark Web
Unfortunately, Tor often gets a bad rap, as some users use the Tor browser to engage in illegal activities on the dark web. Here’s a list of illegal activities or transactions that you should avoid on the dark web:
- Drug trafficking
- Selling or buying weapons and other illegal objects
- Downloading or uploading copyrighted media
- Sex trafficking and pornography (mostly non-consensual and involving children)
- Religious extremism and terrorism
- Selling or buying personal information
- Cybercrimes such as anonymous extortion and malware attacks
- Financial fraud
- Contract or hired killings
How Legal is Tor Browser in Different Countries?
In general, Tor is legal software that’s not specifically banned almost anywhere in the world. In fact, it is widely celebrated as a beacon of sophisticated privacy protection. You can use Tor to hide your web traffic and legitimately browse the dark web without having to worry about any snoopers.
Countries instead have bans or mere restrictions on privacy and anonymity tools like VPNs and proxies. While some countries like China cite national security to justify censorship of such tools, others like Saudi Arabia resort to outright banning of the entire internet ecosystem.
With that said, it’s no secret that laws can vary significantly from country to country. Because of this, there is no specific answer to the question of Tor’s legality in different countries. In some cases, Tor might just not work in a specific region.
In other cases, users may have to do with the unavailability of active exit nodes. I also found that Asian, Middle Eastern, and eastern European countries are more likely to limit users from accessing the onion network than western countries.
I have used official Tor statistics and news articles to list some countries where the Tor Project and its users have been in trouble, especially with the government in power. Check out the legality of Tor applications in different countries below:
1. Tor is banned in Russia
Russia is the only country that deliberately and specifically blocks Tor. Tor reports that Russians made up nearly 15% of its user base before the ban came in late 2021. The reason given by Russia’s media regulator Roskomnadzor was that the website contained “information that ensures the operation of tools that provide access to illegal content.”
Russia’s neighboring country, Belarus, has also been known to restrict exit nodes. It does not outrightly ban the service but makes it difficult for users to utilize the Tor browser efficiently. Belarus blocked Internet anonymizers in the past, with the Tor browser being one of them.
2. Is Tor Legal in Turkey?
Turkey blocked access to Tor in 2016. However, over the past few years, Tor is back in action there, as well as in neighboring countries. Still, as Turkey is known for regularly changing its stance on these topics, it wouldn’t come as a surprise if it blocks the Tor browser again in the future.
3. Iran and Egypt users need a bridge to connect to Tor
Iran is another country where Tor is actively monitored and censored, but not banned. I’ve found reports where users from Iran were forced to use a bridge node to connect to Tor or any other privacy tool. I assume this is because the Iran government doesn’t like its citizens bypassing censorship.
In Egypt, Tor was widely used as a tool for dissent. In 2015, a Cairo court sentenced a student to three years in prison for “spreading false news” and “using a website for terrorist purposes” after he used Tor to access a news website that was blocked in Egypt. There is no outright ban in the country but users still need a workaround to access it.
4. Is Tor Legal in the USA and Canada?
Tor is not censored in the US but I have found that many users still use a bridge to access its applications. According to Tor, roughly 21% of its daily users are from the United States. Out of these, 10% use a bridge to access the tool, possibly to repel any monitoring from the state. As long as you stick to legitimate applications like privacy protection and anonymous web surfing, you will be fine.
5. Legality of Tor Usage in the EU
The use of Tor is generally legal in the European Union, as the right to privacy and freedom of expression are protected under EU law. That said, some EU member states have introduced laws or regulations that could potentially limit or restrict the use of Tor or other anonymity tools, particularly in the context of combating terrorism or cybercrime.
Is Tor Browser Legal in Germany?
Yes, using Tor is legal in Germany. The use of Tor and other anonymity tools is protected by German law under the constitutional right to privacy. You can use the Tor browser to access the dark web and keep your web traffic anonymous. Of course, as with all other countries that permit the use of Tor, it’s not allowed to use the browser for illegal purposes.
6. List of Countries Where Tor Use is Restricted or Censored
While there is no official report to suggest that Tor is banned in the following countries, we can have reasons to believe that there are restrictions in place. According to the information provided on the official Tor traffic analysis page, it is likely censored or unavailable in certain regards in the following countries:
- Bosnia and Herzegovina
Keep in mind that this is an active and regularly updated list. You can go to the Tor Project website and check the top countries by a specific date that interests you.
7. Is Tor Illegal in India and China?
Both Asian countries have been critical of Tor’s probable use as a censorship-evading tool. However, there’s a difference between the two, as China is much more stringent on this topic.
More precisely, the Chinese government has implemented various measures to block access to the Tor network. This includes blocking Tor nodes and monitoring internet traffic for Tor usage.
The Chinese government is generally known for its heavy online tracking practices. So, even if you were able to access Tor, your internet activity may still be subject to surveillance and censorship.
In India, the use of Tor is generally legal, but the Indian government has also taken steps to block access to the Tor network in the past. In 2014, the Indian government ordered internet service providers to block access to several websites, but the order was later lifted.
8. Does Tor Work in Australia and New Zealand?
My extensive research has found that using Tor is legal and safe in both countries. Tor is not blocked in Australia and New Zealand. Both countries have a free and open internet policy and there is no official censorship of the Tor network.
In addition to Australia and New Zealand, the countries that I haven’t mentioned in this numbered list consider the Tor browser an entirely legitimate tool for browsing the Internet anonymously.
So, is Tor safe and legal to use? The answer is yes. If you use the web to shop, social networking, and search for information, Tor can be an essential privacy tool that hides your Internet traffic. Its open-source nature and ease make it a great option for most people. Tor then works as a filter between you and the web and helps protect your privacy to an extent.
That said, things can get murky when you use Tor to access hidden services on the dark web. You may be committing a crime without even realizing it. This can have serious consequences despite the acclaimed privacy that Tor provides. Because of this, every Tor user should be aware of their country’s online privacy laws.
Frequently Asked Questions on Tor’s Legality
Can you be tracked on Tor?
Yes, in some rare cases, you may be tracked when using Tor. If an exit node that you are using is compromised, a system can be developed to trace your web location and/or analyze your Internet traffic. This is because Tor can’t protect you from being tracked at its entry and exit nodes.
This is why you should ideally combine Tor with a VPN provider for maximum privacy. A VPN with military-grade encryption, You can use a VPN over Tor or Tor over VPN. The VPN over Tor setup is perhaps better in the context of this page.
This is because it allows easier access to sites that block Tor nodes. Moreover, this configuration protects you from malicious Tor exit nodes. Keep in mind, VPN over Tor is a bit more complicated to set up than the alternative.
Is Tor Browser legal?
Yes, Tor Browser is a legal software that offers anonymous web browsing and built-in privacy protection. Tor Browser and Tor Messenger both are part of the Tor Project. When it comes to the countries where Tor is illegal, the list is pretty short.
Is the Tor Project affiliated with the US government?
Yes, Tor was originally developed in partnership with the US government’s intelligence community. The project is partly funded by the US government as well as private companies and NGOs. However, Tor claims to be fully independent.
Is Tor a VPN?
No, Tor is not a VPN. While both tools use a similar approach to encrypt and tunnel your traffic, Tor makes use of community-driven exit relays to do so. It is also an open-source project, whereas a VPN is considered proprietary software.
Tor enables you to access the dark web and use the onion browser to maintain anonymity online. On the other hand, a VPN offers private servers and IP addresses to deliver enhanced online protection.
A top-quality VPN, like NordVPN, offers military-grade encryption, stops your device from leaking DNS requests, and hides your real IP address, among many other things. You can even get a dedicated IP address to ensure you’re the only user browsing onion sites with that specific IP.
What countries is Tor blocked in?
As of 2023, The Onion Router is blocked in Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and Egypt. Countries like Uzbekistan, Bahamas, Lithuania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and others have restrictions in place.
Is the Tor browser anonymous?
The Tor browser is designed to provide anonymous browsing and protect your privacy. When you use the Tor browser, your web traffic is encrypted and routed through a relay network, making it difficult for anyone to track your online activity. However, it’s still not a full-proof solution for complete anonymity.
Where can I legally Download the official Tor browser?
You can download Tor directly from the official Tor website. It’s completely legal to do so in most locations. What’s more, Android and iOS users can download Tor from the Google Play Store and Apple App Store, respectively. No matter which device you prefer using, you can use Tor entirely for free.
Is the Tor browser safe enough for surfing the dark web?
The Tor browser is the recommended browser for accessing the dark web. That said, it’s important to use Tor safely and follow certain practices to ensure your digital security. Use only safe onion sites, keep your Tor browser up to date, and don’t give any personal information to unknown users.
Cybersecurity and VPN researcher