The power to structure: exploring social worlds of privacy, technology and power in the Tor Project

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


As Internet freedom movements build infrastructures to promote online privacy, they enrol a wide range of different kinds of of technological work. I explore the cultures of the wider forms of technical work involved in these struggles through a sociological study of the Tor Project, involving twenty-six qualitative interviews with people in the Tor community and extensive archival research in Tor’s mailing lists and design documents. Tor is an online privacy infrastructure whose practice of radical transparency makes it uniquely accessible, and it constitutes an example of a successful, widely used infrastructure which directly undermines the centralisation of governmental power online. Tor is not united around a single worldview, instead exhibiting three distinct framings of its work. Using Susan Leigh Star's social worlds framework, I characterise these three ‘social worlds’ of Tor. I argue that Tor has in the past accommodated its internal clashing perspectives through an ambiguity around politics and a shared construction of the users of Tor, which allow individuals to bridge and translate between these worlds. In recent years, this political ambiguity has become unsustainable. As Internet platforms and infrastructures extend further into social life around the world, so too are they being forced to come to terms with the shaping forces they exert on society and the values they represent. Tor is not exempt from this, and as it navigates these issues it is becoming increasingly mindful of its own relationships to power, values and politics.
Original languageEnglish
JournalInformation, Communication and Society
Early online date24 Feb 2020
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 24 Feb 2020


  • cybercrime
  • cyberculture
  • politics
  • social theory
  • sociology
  • surveillance/privacy


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