The Tor Network is world-renowned for helping users stay anonymous and private online. However, it’s often associated with the dark web and the illegal activities that take place there. This inevitably leads to questions about Tor’s legality.
So, is Tor legal? In short: yes, using Tor is completely legal. However, if you use Tor for illicit activities, like drug trafficking or viewing explicit and abusive content, then you can face legal scrutiny if your activities are traced back to you.
Some countries, such as China and Russia, have also banned the Tor browser and network. Using Tor in these countries could also land you in trouble.
Using a VPN in addition to Tor is a great way to enhance your online anonymity and circumvent state censorship. NordVPN is a great option to use with the Tor network due to its fast speeds, vast server network, and strong emphasis on privacy.
The Tor project is known globally as a pallbearer for freedom, anonymity, and privacy on the internet. One of the project’s popular offerings, the Tor browser, protects users from online tracking and surveillance. It also lets users gain dark web access, which comprises the hidden and unindexed websites on the internet.
As a result, many people questions whether it’s legal to use Tor. The short answer to this question is yes, it is legal to use the Tor browser and network in most countries.
However, if you’re using Tor to perform illicit activities, then you will be held liable under your nation’s law. Since Tor can be used to browse the internet anonymously, it often finds itself in the crosshairs of authoritarian regimes.
This article provides a comprehensive overview of the Tor network’s legality.
Is Using the Tor Network Illegal?
The legality or illegality of Tor usually comes down to the underlying purpose. If you’re using it for legal activities, such as browsing the web or streaming content, you shouldn’t have much to worry about in most countries.
However, the Tor browser is widely associated with the dark web, which is notorious for illegal activities. Needless to say, using Tor to carry out illicit activities can lead to trouble with police and law enforcement. A few examples of the illegal activities most often carried out on the dark web using Tor are:
- Sale of drugs and psychotropic substances
- Human trafficking
- Sexually explicit content, including revenge porn and child porn
- Distribution of different malware, such as killware and worms
- Sale of stolen credentials, such as credit card and account related information
The Silk Road case: When using Tor becomes illegal
Silk Road is probably the most famous case for the illegal use of Tor. Silk Road was an online marketplace for illegal weapons, drugs, and other products. The website was traced back to its source and taken offline, but there are bound to be similar marketplaces on the dark web.
Due to newsworthy cases such as Silk Road, the general public frequently associates Tor with illegal activities on the dark web. Illegal marketplaces and fora are easily set up and instantly accessible for the “right” audience. The Tor browser facilitates such practices, even if that’s not why the platform was set up.
Participating in these platforms and pages using the Tor browser is illegal and will land you in trouble with the law. Even simply using the TOR network is reason enough to land you in a legal soup in some countries. We cover these countries in our next section.
Which Countries Have Banned the Tor Network?
The anonymity that comes with using Tor hampers several nations’ surveillance and law enforcement efforts. This is especially concerning for authoritarian regimes that like to exercise substantial control over everything happening in their countries. Hence, many nations have tried to ban the Tor network by banning the Tor website or shutting down its relays.
Some notable examples are:
- South Africa
Except for China, the Tor network remains accessible through mirrors and proxies in most of these countries. However, please be extra careful when using the Tor browser in these countries. While you’re unlikely to be rounded up by police for simply using the browser, authorities in these countries view the use of Tor with a high degree of suspicion.
The suspicion is partly warranted when you consider the illegal activities Tor can be used for. However, it ignores the legal and productive uses of Tor’s anonymity. The following section sheds some light on these.
What Are Some Legal Uses of Tor?
Accessing the internet anonymously and privately is essential for several legal professions. Anonymous access is even more critical in nations that clamp down on freedom of speech, dissent, and criticism. Some examples of legal uses of Tor are:
- Journalists operating in authoritarian regimes use Tor to protect their sources and shield themselves from vindictive regimes’ actions.
- Political dissidents use Tor to organize rallies and protests on key human rights issues.
- Whistleblowers use Tor to keep their information private and avoid detection. Though whistleblowing is a legal grey area as it can involve the leaking of official state secrets, which is a criminal activity in most nations (more on this in the next section).
- Law enforcement officials use Tor to surveil and track down criminals.
- Cybersecurity and IT professionals use the Tor network to test security protocols by emulating attacks by real-world malicious hackers. This is known as penetration testing.
Edward Snowden’s case: A legal conundrum
As we mentioned above, whistleblowers often use Tor to protect themselves from the government or other entities harmed due to their work. While it’s essential to identify and call out potentially harmful activities, whistleblowing can also be illegal if state secrets are leaked. Edward Snowden’s case best illustrates this.
In 2013, Edward Snowden used Tor to reveal secret NSA documents to the broader public. Uncovering and leaking state documents is a crime under American law. As a result, the US Government charged him under the Espionage Act and issued a warrant for his arrest. In other words, Snowden is a wanted criminal in the US Government’s eyes.
He also called for others to use the Tor browser whenever they go online. According to him, this is one of the few ways to stay anonymous and use your right to publish freely. Governments and official organizations, such as the NSA in the USA, mostly won’t be able to follow you there.
However, many argue that Snowden was right in doing what he did. After all, don’t all citizens have the right to know when someone — anyone — is watching their moves and listening in to their conversations? Moreover, his call to use the Tor browser only sought to help people protect their privacy online.
Whether his actions were legal or not is essentially a moral dilemma, one in which privacy plays a huge role.
Is Tor Completely Safe and Private?
Tor helps create an online environment that’s all about freedom and privacy. With Tor, you can browse without hackers, governments, and your boss looking over your shoulder. It strengthens your right to publish and your freedom of speech. If we’re talking about online safety and anonymity, Tor is a great initiative.
Even so, Tor has had to deal with several safety issues. Multiple official organizations, among them the CIA and the FBI, have been able to circumvent and even breach Tor’s security. As a result, they were able to track down individuals that were connected to certain illegal practices.
Moreover, back in 2017, a weak spot in Tor’s system created the possibility to expose Linux and macOS IP addresses, canceling out the browser’s anonymity.
Always take into consideration that, even with the Tor browser, you and your online data might be uncovered in some way. To ensure you’re working with the best possible online protection, you could always use Tor in combination with a VPN connection. If you do this, your online traffic is secured in two different ways and you have an extra layer of encryption guarding your privacy and anonymity.
Wondering which VPN works best with Tor? Check out the next section.
Which Is the Best VPN to Use With Tor?
Using a VPN with Tor is a great way to further enhance your digital security and privacy. Your online activity is hidden from governments, hackers and even Tor relays when you use Tor over a VPN. All you need to do is connect to a VPN and then launch the TOR browser to get the benefits of Tor over VPN.
Which is the best VPN to use with Tor? We recommend NordVPN. It’s super-fast, offers military-grade encryption, and has a great network of servers. It also comes with extra protection for those who surf the dark web, namely its DDoS protection and “Onion over VPN” servers.
- Excellent protection and a large network of servers
- Nice and pleasing application
- No logs
For more information, read our full review of NordVPN.
Final Remarks on Tor’s Legality
Using Tor isn’t illegal. The Tor browser gives users anonymous access to a free internet. As is the case with everything, this access can be used in both good and bad ways. After all, Tor also allows people to visit criminal websites and marketplaces on the dark web. Despite this, Tor offers an important and adequate option to anonymously spread important information. In short: legally speaking, you can use Tor without any consequences, as long as the things you do online aren’t against the law.
Check out the FAQ section below for straight-to-the-point answers to some of the most common questions about the legal status of the Tor network and browser.
Yes, using Tor is legal provided you don’t use it for illicit activities such as buying drugs and weapons. Browsing the internet or streaming content using the Tor browser is unlikely to get you into trouble with law enforcement.
Some countries, like China and Russia, have also blocked the Tor network. Using it in these nations could lead to legal trouble. Check out our article “Is Tor Legal?” for more information.
Tor, or The Onion Router, is an internationally acclaimed project aimed at protecting user privacy and security online. Its main offering, the Tor browser, allows users to surf the web anonymously and even access the dark web. Learn more about Tor and the dark web here.
Using Tor in combination with a VPN provides greater security and anonymity. ExpressVPN is an excellent option to use along with Tor as it’s fast and has an extensive server network. It even has a dedicated .onion website from where you can download the VPN apps anonymously.