You’re reading this article.. Then you head to Amazon to buy your Grandma’s birthday present This internet browsing is taking place on a layer of the internet called the Surface Web. But beneath it are many more layers of the internet, in what’s known as the Deep Web. At the top of these layers are websites that can be accessed, but can’t be found by doing a search on Google or Bing.
Think online banking and government databases, pages that are password encrypted. But what if you keep going down, all the way to the bottom of the Deep Web? Well, here you’ll find the Dark Web. Here, users communicate through encrypted messages and can buy or sell anything with total anonymity. It’s been called the ‘wild west’ of the internet because operating here in the shadows are extremists, criminals and trolls. So, where did the Dark Web come from and how does it work? Well firstly the Dark Web is not a place but a term that describes parts of the internet that hide your identity and location.
The Dark Web’s infrastructure was created in the 1970s at the same time as the internet itself - but to utilize it, you needed darknet software. Enter the U.S. Naval Research Lab who created, back in the early 2000s, one of the first and still the most popular darknet software - Tor. It was created for a number of reasons, which included providing the U.S. Navy’s intelligence officers with the means to maneuver through the internet without being recognized or traced. But, to really give you an understanding of what the Dark Web is like we need to explore it first hand… So I’ve downloaded Tor, which looks like a normal web browser and seems to behave like one too.
I can visit any site I like, but unlike normal web browsers which would register my IP address straight away, the Tor browser bounces my request to enter the site via several computers around the world encrypting and decrypting my identification as it goes so that no one knows where the request has come from. Now that I’m browsing the internet anonymously, certain websites have become accessible.
Sites that are much like the infamous Silk Road. The Silk Road was the one of the first online black markets where you could buy drugs, guns and child pornography. Two years after starting the site the founder, Ross Ulbricht, was arrested in 2013 and sentenced to life in prison for money laundering, drug trafficking, hacking and fraud. This was quickly followed by a shutdown of its successor Silk Road 2.0 along with similar sites such as ‘Project Black Flag’ and ‘Black Market Reloaded’.
There are even reports that the FBI has hacked into Tor itself, which subsequently saw the browser’s usage drop by nearly 50%. This all gives the impression that the authorities are fighting back, but closing down one or two online markets has simply cleared the way for its competitors.
If you didn’t want to use the Tor browser, there’s I2P or Freenet. Instead of Silk Road 2.0, there’s now Dream, Agora or Alphabay and they all provide the same services. The Dark Web however is not just an eBay for illegal purchases. It’s also used by radical extremists to communicate and spread propaganda. But not all activity going on down in the Dark Web is illegal. Tor, for instance, receives 60% of its backing from the U.S. State Department and the Department of Defense to act as a secure network for both government agencies and political dissidents fighting oppressive regimes. Over the past decade, the Dark Web has empowered activists to spread news during the Arab Spring and encourage whistle blowers to release information. The Dark Web as a tool to help journalists uncover the truth was made popular by Wikileaks. Now news organizations such as The New York Times and The Guardian all host Dark Web drop sites for uploading anonymously leaked tips and documents. It’s also helped domestic-violence victims hide from online stalkers and allowed ordinary citizens to surf the web without being tracked by advertisers or even the government. Which leaves us with a great dilemma.
If the authorities try (and succeed) in shutting down the Dark Web and the criminal activity that it supports, they’ll also be adversely affecting all the people that use it for social benefit. The question remains whether internet freedom and privacy, for legitimate and sometimes life-saving reasons, are worth protecting while this vast criminal underworld operates alongside it, inside the dark web.