The People Suing Tor Don't Actually Know What Tor Is

A lawyer tried to include Tor in a revenge porn complaint, but has now dropped the case against them.

Jul 11 2014, 2:40pm

On Wednesday it was reported that the victim of a revenge porn site was preparing to sue not only the site operators but also Tor, for their part in keeping the site's owners protected and anonymous. Two days later, they’ve wised up a bit and are dropping their case against the anonymity network, instead focusing their efforts squarely on the offending revenge porn site. 

In their original complaint, the plaintiff Shelby Conkin and her lawyer Jason Lee Van Dyke said that “unscrupulous Internet service companies such as TOR offer ‘private’ or ‘anonymous’ domain name hosting services that allow criminals such as PinkMeth [the name of the revenge porn site in question] and its users to escape accountability for their actions.” They were seeking damages upwards of $1 million.

It appears Van Dyke, who on his Twitter profile describes himself as “quite possibly the meanest and most right-wing lawyer in Texas,” thought that some sort of formal agreement had been reached between Tor and PinkMeth, in line with Tor selling a product to deliberately facilitate such a site. That's obviously not the case.

Conkin and Van Dyke have now changed tack. “Since the filing of our lawsuit and service of legal process on PinkMeth, evidence has emerged that TOR may not have provided any goods or services to PinkMeth,” Van Dyke stated in a new press release. Van Dyke doesn't make it explicit what this evidence is, but presumably the media outrage and general bafflement at his position had some sort effect.

He goes on to say that he is pinning down what level of control Tor has over those who maintain sites like PinkMeth, if any at all, and he is seeing if the Tor Project may be able to provide information on who is behind the revenge porn site. (Hint: the answers are none, and no.)

This case was clearly based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what Tor actually is. After all, the Tor Project, the non-profit behind the maintenance and updating of the network, does not sell a service to customers like an ISP or hosting company might. Instead, it relies on sponsors and donations, a list of which can be found here, and distributes its code open source.

To be fair to Van Dyke, the PinkMeth website does lay the praise on Tor rather thick. It says on the site that “Pink Meth is a Tor Hidden Service that allows you to post anyone's nudes and info, anonymously (thanks to Tor), and without the fear of being hit with a phony lawsuit, or any legal repercussions for that matter.” (I guess we’ll see about that.)

They also provide a "Donate to Tor" button, which, for someone who may not be familiar with the non-profit approach of the organization and hasn’t done their research, could be misconstrued as a sign of collaboration between the two. But as Van Dyke finally figured out, that’s not the case.

Even if Tor was like a regular hosting service, it’s not clear that they could be legally culpable for revenge porn sites. As reported by Ars Technica in April, a previous legal effort by victims of a similar site targeted both revenge porn site and Go Daddy, the hosting provider. Go Daddy was found to be protected under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which immunizes certain companies against lawsuits involving content they didn't create themselves.

In one way, however, it’s not surprising that people jump to conclusions about Tor. The reality is that it does give a home to a variety of illegal sites (along with a whole load of legal ones). 

Tor was originally a project created by the US Navy, used to protect sources in countries such as Iran. It gained popularity amongst the general population after crackdowns on bloggers in Russia, and censorship in countries all over the world. The network, however, does also allow these same protections to weapons merchants, child pornographers, drug dealers, and whoever else might want to use it. All too often this is what Tor is associated with in the press, and I would bet that criminality is what most people would think of when they hear the word 'Tor', if they’ve heard of it at all.

Even though Tor can be used for illegal applications, though, it seems that Van Dyke was confused as to which degree. He says that a “review of the TOR website further confirmed by [sic] belief that, although it may have been originally designed for legitimate uses, is now used almost solely to aid and abet criminal conduct.” 

Van Dyke says he was convinced of this by referring to the Tor Project's website. Upon inspection of the site myself, I couldn't find any information that could have led him to the conclusion that it is used “almost solely” for nefarious purposes. If you were going to make any claim based on information available on the Tor site, you would be more likely to say that the majority of daily users are normal people.

According to a graph on the Tor site, directly connecting users of the Tor network remained fairly stable until mid-way through 2013. After then, around about the same time that Snowden revealed the NSA's mass surveillance programs, the number of network users shot up dramatically. Given that timing, it's probably safe to assume many are just normal people concerned for their privacy, and not “almost solely” crooks.

But Van Dyke is far from the only one to jump to that conclusion. Even government agencies consider that someone using the network is enough to make them a target worthy of surveillance. A recent investigation led by journalist and security researcher Jacob Appelbaum showed that even those who visit the Tor Project website without necessarily downloading the software may be tracked by the NSA.

A series of Snowden documents also detailed how the US intelligence agency and its British counterpart GCHQ have repeatedly tried to de-anonymise users of Tor, with some limited success. 

While Tor finds itself disengaged from this most recent legal threat, the association with the case is just the latest misunderstanding to add to the dark, seedy image the anonymity network seems to have built up.