The Dark Web (part of the Deep Web) allows Internet users to be totally anonymous. It’s also at the center of an ethical debate about what constitutes freedom.
Buried below the surface of the visible Internet, there is another Internet.
This is a deeper Internet, one harder to access and far stranger to behold. It is called the Dark Web, and it is host both to noble ideas such as freedom and liberation from surveillance and control and to some of the darkest human impulses.
Those who use the Dark Web do so for a variety of reasons – to avoid authoritarian control, to protect themselves from prying eyes and hungry data farms, and yes, to commit crimes.
Internet's universe (Credit: CLUC via Creative Commons)
When I first went on the Dark Web, I quickly found myself reading a Wikipedia manifesto about how to escape the matrix of the surveilled, corporation-dominated world order. Then I stumbled upon a chatroom where a bunch of people were discussing utopias, paradises, and their pitfalls. It felt exciting and full of contradictions and possibilities, kind of like what I’ve heard the Internet first felt like when it began growing popular, back when it was all about cat videos and learning new stuff.
But as with so much of the cyber world, nothing is as it seems. The Dark Web is neither just a utopian paradise of free speech, nor only a dangerous hotbed of illicit activities. Instead, it’s a tangle of both.
So, let’s dive into the morally ambiguous pit of chaos that is the Dark Web.
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Birth of the Secret Internet: What Is the Dark Web?
First off, the Dark Web is frequently confused with the Deep Web, though they are not the same thing. The term “Deep Web” refers to anything that does not appear in regular search engine results. Today, most of us spend our time on the “Surface Web,” which includes sites indexed by standard search engines such as Google and Bing. But the Deep Web, which is estimated to contain 500 to 5,000 times as much content as the Surface Web, is anything that won’t appear in a regular search, such as paid content enforced by a paywall or any kind of encrypted site.
The Dark Web is a tiny subset of the Deep Web that is accessible only via a special browser. The most common way to access the Dark Web is through a browser known as Tor, which is also sometimes referred to as the Onion Router. Tor is free, open-source software that hides data from anyone or anything tracing network activity, meaning that searches are completely private. It works by encrypting information and then bouncing it through a network of relays, ensuring total anonymity.
Tor was largely funded in the 1990s and 2000s by the U.S. government, receiving financial support from the Naval Research Lab and the Defense Advanced Research Project, among other bodies.
Contrary to popular perceptions, not everything on the Dark Web or on Tor is malicious. In fact, most major corporations have Tor sites, including Facebook, The New York Times, and the CIA.
While a secret, anonymous web browser that plays host to the Dark Web and all its sordid exploits (which we’ll get into soon enough) might seem to contradict the ostensible values of such companies and institutions, there are important upsides to Tor and to the idea of a private and free Internet overall.
Digital Privacy in the Surveillance Era: Why People Use Tor
Tor and the Dark Web are useful and beneficial in many different scenarios. They’re particularly popular with journalists and activists in countries where censorship and surveillance are common, and some major news outlets use it to protect the identity of some of their sources.
Tor is frequently used by victims of violent crimes or domestic abuse, or by people living under authoritarian regimes. In addition, it’s a favorite tool of whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden, who used it to reveal proof of classified surveillance programs run by the U.S. government.
According to the Tor project team, the browser is basically used by four major groups: military professionals, people worried about cyberspying, people evading censorship in certain countries, and ordinary people who want to keep their information private from search engines and advertisers. So even if you’re not looking to hide illegal activities or to spread revolutionary ideas free from the prying eyes of a surveillance state, improving online privacy is a good enough reason to invest in an encryption service like the one provided by Tor.
“In essence, it’s the World Wide Web as it was originally envisioned: a space beyond the control of individual states, where ideas can be exchanged freely without fear of being censored. As countries continue to crack down on the web, its dark counterpart is only going to become more relevant as a place to discuss and connect with each other.” – Joseph Cox on Wired
In addition, the Dark Web and Tor are arguably aligned ideologically with very American ideals of freedom and free speech. But, of course, the anonymity provided by Tor and the Dark Web also come at a cost.
Dark Web (Credt: Geralt via Wikimedia Commons)
It should be no surprise that the Dark Web is frequently abused by people who wish to conceal nefarious activities. While not all of the Dark Web is defined by illicit, pornographic, or otherwise reprehensible content, it definitely has a heart of almost unimaginable darkness.
Into the Shadows: Journey Through the Dark Web
While it’s impossible to chronicle exactly what’s on the Dark Web due to its fundamentally untraceable nature, one 2016 survey of 5,205 Dark Web sites found that while half appeared defunct, about a quarter of the remaining sites reviewed were dedicated to illicit activities. Of those illicit sites, the most common were black market sites catering to the sale and distribution of illegal drugs.
The surveyed sites included 423 facilitating drug-related transactions, while 327 sites involved financial crimes such as illicit trade in stolen social security and credit card numbers. After that came 140 sites that espoused “extremist ideologies” such as neo-Nazism, and 122 sites that showed illegal pornography, many involving violence, children, or animals. And there were 17 sites that claimed to offer hitmen for hire.
These numbers provide a window into just a few corners of the Dark Web, but one thing is clear: There’s a lot of horror and a lot of crime infecting the bowels of the Internet. On a visit to the Dark Web, you can buy anything from a lifetime Netflix subscription to counterfeit bills to bank account login credentials.
The general rule of the evil side of the Dark Web seems to be: No matter how messed up what you stumble upon might be, take another step and you’ll find something even more horrifying.
Controlling the Dark Web: Law Enforcement Strikes Back
For as long as criminal activity has proliferated on the Dark Web, law enforcement has been in hot pursuit. A 2013 sting led by the FBI resulted in the dissolution of the Silk Road, which was then the Dark Web’s most popular marketplace. During its two-year existence, the Silk Road apparently played host to 100,000 customers, and it helped popularize the use of Bitcoin. Its administrator, Ross Ulbricht, was eventually sentenced to life in prison.
In another case, United States and Dutch law enforcement working on a project called Operation Bayonet shut down two major Dark Web marketplaces, known as AlphaBay and Hansain in July 2017.
Just recently, in late October 2021, a 10-month investigation called Operation Dark HunTor, a joint operation of the U.S. Department of Justice and the E.U.’s law enforcement agency Europol, shut down a marketplace called DarkMarket, resulting in 150 arrests. The site had sold everything from stolen credit card numbers to weapons and drugs. The investigation also led to the closures of two other sites, DeepSea and Berlusconi, as well as the seizure of $3.6 million in cryptocurrency.
In light of these crackdowns, some have critiqued Dark Web drug stings, as the “War on Drugs” has also been widely criticized for its ineffectiveness and failure to address drug trade problems at their roots.
Indeed, it is worth acknowledging if only to emphasize the fact that rooting out the evil that plagues the Dark Web will never be as simple as shutting down its major marketplaces, just as arresting low-level users will never address drug problems at their roots.
A Double Bind: The Dark Web’s Moral Ambiguity
What would it take to shut down the Dark Web altogether? More than two or three stings, that’s for sure. The Dark Web is anonymous, after all, and that means that when one illicit marketplace or illegal website is taken down, another can easily crop up in its place, like a twisted game of Whack-a-Mole.
“Historically, based on 10 years of data, anytime a large marketplace has closed, second-tier marketplaces started to fill in the gaps,” said Nicolas Cristin, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University who researches online security and cryptocurrency. As new marketplaces arise, they tend to learn from their fallen forebears’ mistakes, often adopting best practices that make them even harder to trace.
Credit: Jason A. Sandfeld via Creative Commons
Despite all this, the Dark Web isn’t some impenetrable force of incomparable evil. While the Deep Web makes up the vast majority of the Internet, the Dark Web actually comprises only a tiny fraction of what’s out there, and many of its sites are unstable and disorganized. Dark Web marketplaces are plagued by backstabbing and betrayal, and viruses run rampant across its servers.
Like most of what humans have made, the Dark Web is both good and evil, both powerful and immensely fragile. And in a world of surveillance where major corporations harvest users’ data and sell it to the highest bidder, having a private space like the Dark Web where people can operate without surveillance may be vital to the survival of free speech and privacy on the whole. But complete freedom without regulation always comes at a cost – often to those who established that freedom in the first place.
Ross Ulbricht, who is now serving a double life sentence in prison without parole for seven charges including conspiracy to launder money and continuing a criminal enterprise, launched Silk Road, the aforementioned marketplace shut down in 2013, in order to make the world a better place. “The irony is that I made Silk Road in the first place because I thought I was furthering the things I cared about: Freedom, privacy, equality,” Ulbricht said in an interview with Nasdacht. “But by making Silk Road, I wound up in a place where those things don’t exist.”
Ulbricht is an example of someone whose ideals of freedom were misused and distorted beyond recognition, and who is being punished for the ways other people decided to use the platform he created. Many people see Ulbricht as a victim of a system that condemns people merely for creating a platform where people can operate freely and anonymously.
“Ultimately, the dark net is nothing more than a mirror of society. Distorted, magnified, and mutated by the strange and unnatural conditions of life online – but still recognizably us.” —Jamie Barlett, The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld
One thing is clear: For as long as people need privacy and anonymity, the Dark Web will continue to exist in some form, growing ever-more difficult to find. Like most attempts to adapt utopian ideals to social settings, it is plagued by evil and corruption, and yet the ideals themselves remain noble and necessary.
Eden Arielle Gordon is a writer, editor, and musician based in San Francisco, California. She graduated from Barnard College with a BA in English, and her work has been published on Grunge.com, Popdust.com, Lilith Magazine, and Untapped Cities, among others.