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Forced to live side by side. Power, privacy and conflict in the Tor network

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posted on 18.08.2021, 09:05 by Daniele Pizio
The Tor anonymous network (acronym of The Onion Routing) is a socio-technical object of extraordinary complexity the significance of which cannot be reduced to the trivial “Dark Web” media narrative usually employed to depict it. Originally conceived as a technical fix to mitigate the design flaws that affect the Internet architecture and have made electronic mass surveillance possible, Tor has progressively evolved into a distributed open source network which nowadays sees the participation of thousands of activists, academics, diplomats, army engineers and ICT company technologists. Its development trajectory has been influenced by numerous hacker cultures that have found in the infrastructure a space of cohabitation and experimentation suitable to fine tune new technological prototypes and political practices. These have been elaborated and tested in multiple historical contexts, such as the so called Arab Spring, the Anonymous movement, the Snowden’s leaks, the rise of whistleblowing platforms in journalism, as well as the US State Department’s digital diplomacy and the efforts made by Washington and Silicon Valley to secure the US digital infrastructures.
The thesis analyses the material configuration of the Tor infrastructure whose technical features and organizational practices contributed to the emergence of these different involvements with Tor. In order to achieve this objective, the study a) traces a genealogy of the imaginaries embodied into Tor and the power relationships that model its infrastructure and functions, b) investigates how its developers interpret the concept of privacy and incorporate it into the platform, c) explores the politics and practices adopted by the Tor community to ensure the sustainability and the usability of the network. The research design of the study is a three-year long ethnography of the infrastructure. The analysis of Tor is structured around a careful reading of its fundamental design papers, an examination of the financial statements made public since 2008 by the Tor Project and a collection of interviews featuring twenty people who contributed at various levels to the growth and the maintenance of the network.
From this work it emerges that Tor is an experimentation platform crossed by subjectivities often different to one another but still forced to live side by side in order to engender practices and technologies that disrupt the power relations constituting the contemporary Internet and generate alternative ways of existence. The thesis contributes to the field of Science and Technology Studies concerned with Internet governance, as well as the organizational forms adopted by social movements within the current age of surveillance capitalism.



Amanda Earley; Dimitris Papadopolous

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School of Business

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University of Leicester

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