The Tor Project did not gain its 501©3 nonprofit certification until 2006, but the research and coding that led to the concept of “onion routing” began in the mid-1990s.
If you are not quite familiar with what the Tor Project is, before we take a look at how it functions as a completely private and encrypted web browser – particularly, whether it might benefit or hinder your TV and movie streaming experience – let us first look into the vision, philosophy, and central idea behind what led to the Tor Project’s existence. As more and more of our data is being bought and sold to corporations, many of us have come to value our online privacy, and this is precisely the ethos that led to the world’s most secure web browser, Tor.
If you take a look at the About section of torproject.org, a fundamental understanding of why Tor was developed begins to materialize. “Just like Tor users,” the site states, “the developers, researchers, and founders who’ve made Tor possible are a diverse group of people. But all of the people who have been involved in Tor are united by a common belief: internet users should have private access to an uncensored web.”
And this is basically what Tor stands for, what it is all about: protection of privacy. As we see the traditional internet or the Clearnet, become increasingly censored, moderated, surveilled, mined for data, Tor offers a version of the internet that is of the people and for the people. With everything that one does on the Tor browser being sent through a complex network of encryption, you are virtually guaranteed not to be tracked. Your web history and data will not be easily collected (if at all). In short, Tor offers the closest thing to 100% privacy on the web – a rare and highly valued commodity.
As it began to become evident that online user activity could be easily tracked, in 1995 David Goldschlag, Mike Reed, and Paul Syverson – researchers at the US Naval Research Lab – began to question whether it would be possible to create an entirely anonymous web browsing experience. From this bold question, the first designs for what would become known as an onion network were drawn up.
Onion networks are created by routing traffic online through numerous different servers, as many as possible, encrypting all data transmitted through them every step of the way. This is, essentially, the same way that the Tor browser works to this day. The term “onion” network refers to the many layers of encryption at play; thus,
An “onion” network consists of routing internet traffic through as many different servers as possible, encrypting the data constantly along the way. More or less, this is how the Tor network of today works. This is why it is referred to as “onion” routing – it consists of layers and layers of encryption and privacy.
Years passed by, many trials were conducted, and onion networks proved to be successful. The three men who created the first onion network had accomplished what was previously thought to be impossible: a decentralized, 100% private version of the internet. Onion networks were shown to successfully be able to bypass government firewalls (thereby sidestepping censorship laws). This, of course, led to the Tor Project becoming an invaluable resource for activists, journalists, and revolutionaries living under dictatorships in the mid-2000s.
By the time 2006 rolled around, the Tor browser of today was officially put into place. In alignment with the liberty focus of encryption and privacy, Tor was given a worldwide release as freeware – anybody can download it free of charge and without any sign up required – the browser still exists as freeware to this day. Just like web browsers with less anonymity (i.e. Chrome, Firefox, etc.), all Tor requires is a quick download, and you are good to go. The network re-routing and encryption are all automatically done for you by the browser itself.
Tor, however, due to its highly successful encryption power and potential for anonymity, has resulted in the creation of some of the darker layers of the web. In other words, the “dark” web (sometimes called the “deep web”) can be accessed by Tor. A hotbed for illegal activity, in a twist of irony, this decentralized version of the internet that was created by the US military has become one of the biggest challenges to federal authorities.
It would be irresponsible to discuss the dark web without giving a word of caution. This can be a dangerous and potentially traumatizing underbelly of the internet to casually browse around. To put it one way, there is content to be found here that cannot be unseen. So, if you are going to use the Tor browser, proceed with caution. It is generally not advisable to click around on random links found on the dark web. That being said, if you just want to use Tor to privately and anonymously stream from sites that you already know and trust, you will have nothing to worry about.
Okay, but enough of the nitty-gritty high-tech stuff … if you’re thinking of downloading Tor, you probably want to know what it looks like and how it works, right? Well, design-wise, it is not entirely unlike Google Chrome. In terms of the layout, in fact, it almost looks identical – which is great because that means that it won’t take you long at all to adapt to the new browser. There won’t be a whole lot necessary for you to learn (or unlearn) in order to get down to streaming your favorite shows and movies on Tor.
You’ll find your collection of tabs at the top of the browser, which you can click between and move around as you would expect. In the top right-hand corner of the browser, you’ll find a settings dropdown menu, where you will be able to access your library of saved sites and content, a list of your logins and passwords, extensions, page viewing options, etc. One thing that might be notably missing from this menu, however, is a history button … because, well, that’s part of the point of Tor, it does not track your history.
Desktop and Mobile Experience
As far as actual user experience is concerned, as I touched on earlier, Tor is just as intuitive as the best non-encrypted web browsers out there. It is easy to use and familiar, all the hotkeys are the same, and you won’t have to learn anything new to make the most of it. Plus, whether you are using the desktop version of the mobile app version of Tor, you are guaranteed a smooth and reliable experience.
However, there are some downsides to Tor that other web browsers do not necessarily create. You will likely notice a lag in loading and buffering times. This is just a required price to pay for privacy, unfortunately. This is because of the fact that, as I laid out earlier, the nature of a decentralized network is to constantly encrypt and scramble your data across a massive server network. So, your data has to be sent out across numerous servers and scrambled multiple times over before it can make it’s way back to you. This will, naturally, take longer than if your data is sent one place and back immediately, unencrypted.
This may be frustrating, of course, for anyone who enjoys streaming HD video content (especially if you prefer to live stream). In fact, you may even find yourself growing impatient with the buffering speeds of lower quality streams. However, deciding whether or not to use Tor is going to probably be a matter of deciding how much you value your online privacy. In other words, what do you value more: speed of downloading and streaming content or a fully encrypted private online experience?
That being said, you can still take advantage of most of the bells and whistles that a traditional web browser offers. Even though your data is not trackable, you can still make and save bookmarks and login information. There are also extensions available for Tor. However, it should be noted that the Tor Project itself does not recommend using them … at least if true anonymity is your goal. Makers of add-ons, of course, can potentially access your data and Tor, therefore, cannot regulate what those add-on software developers do with it. Therefore, an ad blocker, for example, can be used with Tor … but it could potentially undo the whole purpose of using Tor in the first place; it could endanger your privacy.
At the end of the day, Tor is awesome at keeping your data anonymous and encrypted. But if you are looking for fast and lossless video streaming, Tor might not be the most practical choice. Once again, it all boils down to what you most value when it comes to your online experience. If you find that privacy is it, definitely go with Tor. Otherwise, you’re probably better off with Chrome or Firefox.