The Dark Web, between the Myth and the Promise of Anonymity

The uses of the hidden Internet seem to move between two opposing poles: illegitimate activities and political activism.

However little you’ve heard about the dark web, it’s impossible to navigate around it without preconceived ideas. The media relate it to drug trafficking, terrorism and child pornography; meanwhile, activists and journalists defend it as a tool for social change. Beyond the myths, navigating around the dark web turns out to be much more prosaic than one would expect, and its political potential resides in a practical aspect: recovering the right to anonymity in the era of digital surveillance.

The Internet will always have a hidden side. Actions as simple as filling out a form online, for example, generate databases that conventional databases cannot or simply do not want to index. Like this type of content, countless computer tasks and processes exist that increase the greater part of the Internet’s volume; as well as sites with very few visits or with no links, that pass unnoticed by the eyes of the search engines.

In reality, the large part of this hidden Internet is accessible via conventional browsers. Only a small segment contains information that is intentionally private and anonymous, that can only be consulted using specific software. These types of networks are given the name the dark web, although often they are incorrectly called the deep web. However, this second term encompasses the entire set of contents not indexed by the search engines, whether on purpose or not.

Although it is difficult to quantify the real volume of the dark web, the anonymity network Tor (The Onion Router) calculates that at present between 50,000 and 60,000 services exist with the .onion extension, one of the most popular for anonymising information. A figure that relativizes the magnitude often attributed to the dark web in relation to the conventional web, as on the latter over 1,200 million pages exist.

A threadless net

Despite the expectations it generates, navigating around the dark web is a fairly frustrating and often boring experience. The navigation encryption system leads some pages to load notoriously slowly, which means it is easy to give up if you only enter the dark web out of curiosity.

Moreover, although contents search engines exist, their usefulness is limited. The desire for anonymity, a de-structured design and the fleeting nature of many of the websites are an obstacle to the indexing of results, therefore the majority of search engines do not show relevant entries, or not in the same way as expected with Google. For this reason, the main resources for browsing the dark web are links directories, which by definition do not include all the information possible and also they have an abundance of broken links. As if that were not enough, a study by the MIT’s SMART Lab discovered that 87% of the sites on the dark web do not have a single external link, which does not help to jump from one to another. According to the study’s authors, this is not due to any technical impediment, but to the culture established in that space, where people prefer to remain hidden and where relations are not based on connections of trust.

Probably for this reason the social layer of the dark web is very limited. Although native social networks do exist along with clones of conventional services such as Twitter or Facebook, the majority of them do not have many users and updates are more sporadic, therefore establishing relations is difficult. This does not mean that no active communities exist, but they tend to group around debating forums such as 8chan, the dark sister of the popular imageboard 4chan. In this sense, online sociability is more similar to the Internet of the 1990s, through forums, chats and mail, than that of the social web that is predominant today.

Thus, navigating around the dark web can be a counterintuitive and often solitary experience, and it is not clear that its use is really widely extended. Although it is not the only anonymity network available, Tor currently has some 2 million users, although the service itself estimates that only between 1.3 and 1.5% o its traffic visits anonymous domains.

The dark side of anonymity

The dark web is used for legitimate and illegitimate activities alike and although there is no certainty regarding which of them is in the majority, different studies calculate that some 45-60% of the websites are illegal to some degree or in some jurisdiction. The truth is that any Internet user will easy find sites that are selling arms, drugs, hacking services, stolen goods, false passports, etc. What is not so clear is the volume of transactions generated by these activities or even whether they are real or scams, which are frequent and which some users try to identify. One of the few estimates available is that which the United States made with respect to the defunct Silk Road, a popular black market for drugs. The accusation by the US government against its founder, Ross Ulbricht, attributed to the service some 1.2 billion dollars in sales between January 2011 and September 2013.

Child pornography is also visible and easy accessible, and although only 2% of the dark web is dedicated to paedophilia, The Global Commission on Internet Governance calculates that it attracts over 80% of the total traffic. This does not prevent part of the culture of the dark web being militant against these kinds of contents, and many forums prohibit it and explicitly condemn it. One example is the attacks involving the hacker collective Anonymous, which in various waves blocked the servers of hundreds of domains of this type, while publishing the databases of their users. In spite of all this, it must not be forgotten that these websites also operate on the conventional World Wide Web. In 2016, the Internet Watch Foundation found 57,335 websites of this type on servers open to the public.

Finally, despite the frequent association with terrorism, a study by King’s College London  reached the conclusion that sites with terrorist and extremist ideology are very scarce on the dark web. This could be due to the fact that the propaganda and proselytising of these organisations is more effective on the conventional web, which is more populated and easily accessible by users from all over the world. At the same time, encrypted messaging services such as Telegram already offer anonymity in a simpler and faster way than the dark web, which means that these types of organisations do not need this technology to operate.

Privacy as politics

Leaving aside the more controversial contents, an alternative narrative for the dark web defends its use as a political tool for people living under authoritarian regimes, where access to information and freedom of expression is banned. Although political debating forums and blogs are common on the dark web, the truth is that none of them appear to be geared towards practical action; therefore one can suppose that these types of activities are carried out in secret.

Despite it being practically impossible to obtain information on this practice, the data show that the countries where Tor is most used are those with strong restrictions on freedoms (United Arab Emirates, Russia, Iran, etc.) but also the most consolidated democracies (United States, United Kingdom, Germany, etc.), with the countries with limited democracies being the places with the fewest users. Canadian researcher Eric Jardine has studied this tendency and puts forward various hypotheses for explaining the results: Although its use in repressive countries could be explained as a way of avoiding governmental control, in the liberal regimes it could be due both to unlawful activities, and to the simple possibility of doing it (access to broadband, technology, legal permissiveness). Another possibility, Jardine notes, is that it is due to the desire to avoid censorship and surveillance by governments and companies, or simply to defend the importance of anonymity on the Internet.

In relation to this later aspect, the revelations of mass spying by Edward Snowden in 2013 provided evidence that governmental control is not something that should only concern citizens living under authoritarian regimes, but that people from all over the world are exposed to scrutiny by security agencies, even from foreign countries. For this reason, the potential of the dark web surpasses the sphere of strictly political activism and highlights the idea of anonymity as an essential tool for democracy. Beyond its illicit contents, the dark web is useful insofar as it recovers the promise of the early Internet, a space where people can think and express minority opinions freely, without the obligation of identifying themselves with their real name, without having to provide their personal data to companies and without fear of governmental persecution.

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The Dark Web, between the Myth and the Promise of Anonymity