TECH ANALYSIS | THE INDEPENDENT | Silk Road. Cryptocurrencies. Drug markets. Stolen databases and disturbing content. These are just a few keywords associated with the dark web, and not many people dare to dig deeper to understand the true and ambiguous nature of the underbelly of the Internet.
The dark web is a segment of the deep web, whose main difference from the ’surface web’ is its hidden structure, inaccessible to web crawlers that perform the indexing of the ’surface web’.
The main function of search engines like Google is to structure the surface web, index its pages to provide users with access to information based on keyword. The information contained on the deep web (and the dark web), on the other hand, is not indexed by Google, and cannot be found by simply inputting keywords into Google search.
On the dark web, information is often only accessible if you have the address of the webpage (which is a string of numbers with .onion domain) and login credentials. It is hard to estimate exactly how many websites there are on the dark web.
The dark side
In his book “The Dark Net”, Jamie Bartlett explores the history and evolution of the dark web, from the development of Tor browser for the protection of US Naval intelligence communications, and up to modern days when the unindexed part of the web became almost synonymous with illegal.
Tor browser, while not the only way to access the dark web, is the most widely used one: it encrypts your browsing traffic, masks your real IP address (much like if you were using a VPN), and allows you to reach into the depth of the internet inaccessible to search engines and inhabitants of the ’surface web’.
Security and privacy of the internet browsing experience lie at the core of tools like Tor browser, and compatible VPN providers like TorGuard. Because even on the most secure and privacy-focused browser like Tor, if you are planning to dive to the depth of the dark web, you may need to wear an additional cloak of invisibility provided by a VPN.
The dark web is an ecosystem. It is an economic ecosystem where cryptocurrency is exchanged for goods and services inaccessible on the clear web.
Dark web marketplaces function like eBay: you browse the products, you read customer reviews, you order and pay (in Bitcoin), except the delivery arrives at a drop point instead of your home address, then you leave your own review.
Of course, you’d hear about illicit dark web marketplaces being shut down every now and then: the Silk Road went down with a loud bang after an FBI operation in 2013, and its creator handed a life sentence. But in their place, new marketplaces emerge. Most of them do not specialise in a particular kind of merchandise, but others have a reputation for being good for certain types of products.
In January 2019, xDedic marketplace was shut down in a joint FBI-Europol operation – the platform was notorious for selling stolen databases, facilitating identity theft and profiting from illegally obtained personal data. Remember the 2015 Ashley Madison stolen database that had names of thousands of cheating husbands? It was originally dumped on the dark web to allow ‘freelancers’ buy user records and blackmail them.
The dark web is also an ideological and political ecosystem. One of the most disturbing parts of Bartlett’s book is a glimpse into the ‘assassination market’ hosted on one of the dark websites, where users can place bets to predict the date of death of a famous politician, celebrity, any public figure.
Then there is child pornography. Self-harm groups. Neo-nazi discussion forums. Anything that is designed to push and cross the boundaries of morality and legality – as long as you are allowed to preserve your anonymity. The dark net has no censorship, nor self-censorship. Subcultures from the fringes of social and political spectrum emerge and grow in the dark web forums.
The other side
But the dark web is also everything that it was originally imagined as by the creators of the Tor project: an encrypted online ecosystem where nothing and no one interferes with others’ freedom of expression, assembly and privacy.
The dark net is used by The New Yorker as an encrypted virtual dropbox for whistleblowers who want to submit evidence anonymously without fear of being detected and traced to their real identity.
The dark web is used by human rights activists in oppressive regimes where internet censorship and surveillance make it hard to communicate or assemble for voices of dissent.
The inhabitants of the dark web benefit not only from privacy provided by technical specifications of the Tor browser (activities untraceable to internet service provider, communication traffic encrypted so that it can’t be intercepted by third parties), but also from complete anonymity provided by a dark web social culture where everyone is known by their username, everyone pays in cryptocurrency and no one would suggest to meet up IRL.
So how dark is the dark web? It really depends how deep down the rabbit hole you are ready to dive.