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The Dark Web Dilemma

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Credit: adimas/adobe

By Eric Jardine

The dark web can hide the activities of organised crime and child abusers but it can also enable people in repressive regimes to communicate with the wider world.

Imagine you live in a highly repressive regime that closely watches your every move and restricts what you can say and do online. In such a context, trying to engage in public life via a normal internet connection can lead to your abuse, arrest or worse – even at the hands of your own government.

The “dark web” presents an alternative. It can keep you safe from the abuses of governments that want to spy on you, censor what you can say and do online and restrict the very vibrancy of public life that can lead to democratic change.

Imagine instead that you have criminal intent in your heart. Maybe you want to pay a professional to have someone beaten, crippled, raped or murdered. Maybe you want to have someone’s computer hacked, their reputation ruined or their private moments exposed to the world. Maybe you want to buy illegal drugs, guns or view child abuse imagery.

Doing any of these things via a normal internet connection would swiftly bring the long arm of the law down upon you. But the dark web again presents an alternative. It can protect you from the righteous fury of law enforcement, even as they endeavour to keep society safe from abuse, theft, drugs and child molestation.

The dark web is a person’s saving grace in both scenarios.

The dark web is basically a tool that allows people to surf the web anonymously. What motivates people to use the dark web and what people do with the anonymity that it provides depends upon the person and the situation within which they find themselves.

The dark web is based upon a global network of volunteered computers. The largest and most popular way to access the dark web is via the Tor browser. Tor has around 2 million users each day and that number is generally increasing over time. Other methods of accessing the dark web exist, such as I2P, but they are far less popular.

Tor works in a different way to a typical internet connection. When a person connects to the internet from their home, office or mobile device, they typically fire up a web browser such as Google’s Chrome or Apple’s Safari to search the web. With a few strikes of the keys, the typical web-browsing process is set into motion. Their internet service provider sends their request to view some content around the world to the server hosting the information that they want to access, which gets the information and sends it back. That information could be a funny video, a news story, or a cat meme. In the end, it does not really matter, as the typical process always works in more or less the same way. The connection is a fairly transparent and direct one, and this allows law enforcers, website operators and internet service providers to see what you are doing online.

The Tor browser is different. It provides its users with anonymity by breaking up that direct connection. Rather than having your request sent directly to a site you want to visit by your internet service provider, Tor encrypts your request and then relays your query to the desired destination via a series of three computers that could be located pretty well anywhere in the world.

You could think of it like a technologically intense version of the children’s game of Telephone, except that the order of people in the line keeps changing. What basically happens is you whisper your request to the first person in the series, who whispers it to the second person, who whispers it to the third person, who then gets what you are after and then returns it to you via the same process. By encrypting your request, randomly shuffling the series of relay computers through which you traffic flows and breaking up the signal, the Tor browser makes users anonymous because it becomes extraordinarily difficult to match the initiator of a request with the content that was actually retrieved.

The dark web has another component. In addition to the anonymising browser, Tor lets people host what are known as “hidden service” websites. These websites are hosted anonymously and can only be accessed via the Tor browser. The hosting process, while distinct from the browser process, employs the same combination of principles: breaking up a signal and injecting random change into the process to generate anonymity.

Unlike regular websites, the sites on the dark web are not indexed and easily searchable. To find them, a person either needs to use a wiki site that provides a rough catalogue of sites (although many of the links provided will be dead) or be given the address by someone else.

In some cases, the sharing of a dark web address could occur between criminals. In others, as in the case of a form of malware known as Ransomware, a hacker could lock a person out from their computer and then direct the person to a dark website in order to pay a ransom for the keys to unlock the device. Others, particularly in repressive regimes, might hear of a site through word of mouth from international activists.

The pairing of anonymous web browsing and anonymous website hosting is when things get complicated. Recently, two computer scientists named Gareth Owen and Nick Savage from the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom volunteered computers into the Tor-hosted dark web to try to get a sense of what was going on in the internet’s shadowy underbelly.

They started by categorising the types of hidden service websites hosted by the Tor network. They found a bunch of sites that would come as little surprise to anyone who watches the news: sites dedicated to the sale of drugs, such as the infamous and now defunct Silk Road, along with many other illegal marketplaces. There were also fraud sites, gambling sites and chatrooms. They also found that roughly 2% of all the Tor hidden service websites that they characterised hosted child abuse images, videos and chatrooms.

That 2% became very important in the second stage of their work.

As a next step, Owen and Savage started to track the flow of site visits to the various categories that they had developed. They found that while only 2% of the Tor hidden service websites were dedicated to child abuse imagery, just over 80% of the all traffic through the dark web went to this small sliver of nefarious websites (http://tinyurl.com/gmteg6m).

When you combine these empirical results with media coverage describing the dark web as a seedy underbelly of the internet where digital drug kingpins roam and where anything you could ever think of is available for hire, you get a pretty dismal picture of what the dark web is and the uses to which it can be put.

Many people, when faced with this litany of ill-uses, simply say: “Shut it down!” In fact, a recent public opinion poll released by the Centre for International Governance Innovation found that 71% of people from 24 countries around the world want the network shut down (http://tinyurl.com/jl8kzh6). To many, that seems like a sound step.

But the interesting flipside of this number is that, despite the truly horrible uses to which the dark web can be put, 29% of people still want the network to stay up and active. The reason so many people want the Tor network to remain is not that nearly 30% of people out there are criminal in their motivation, but rather that nearly 30% of people recognise that the network can also do good.

A part of the good use of the network is actually pretty banal. While the dark web traffic flowing to hidden service websites tends to cluster in some very troubling (and rightly illegal) ways, the Tor browser can also be used as a platform to surf the everyday web we all use all time. In fact, one estimate on the Tor Project blog – the incorporated not-for-profit that manages the Tor network – estimates that only 3-6% of all Tor traffic actually goes to dark websites (http://tinyurl.com/j5robng). The remaining 94–97% of traffic went to everyday, run-of-the-mill websites that could just as easily be accessed via Chrome or Safari, but with less privacy protection.

The point is that dark web browsers are only rarely used to actually access dark web websites. Most of the time the system is used to anonymously peruse what is more commonly known as the surface web. It is, of course, easy enough to get in a lot of trouble on the normally accessible parts of the internet, but it is likely that many of the everyday users of Tor are doing so because they care about their online privacy and are willing to take technological steps to ensure that what they are doing is free from prying eyes.

There is also reason to suspect that people in highly repressive countries need to use technologies like Tor in order to exercise their basic political rights. I myself have taken a look at whether there is a relationship between a country’s level of political repression and the use of the Tor network by its population. There is. At extreme levels of repression, in places like China, Russia and Uzbekistan, high levels of repression do drive people to use the network in statistically significant numbers, suggesting that at a bare minimum people in really bad political environments are likely use the technology to avoid the prying eyes of the state and to access restricted content (http://tinyurl.com/zyc68gw). Using Tor could be the only thing standing between them and the coercive arm of a repressive regime.

In fact, dissidents, human rights activists, journalists and anyone with a concern for privacy can (and do) use Tor, not necessarily to get up to no good but to undertake activity that repressive and powerful governments deem threatening. Media outlets such as ProPublica, Wired and others have dark web versions of their websites. Even social media sites like Facebook have set up dark web versions of their websites in order to connect people in repressive regimes with the outside world.

In other words, the network can be used for good reasons too.

So, many people have a justifiable knee-jerk reaction to the very idea of the dark web. Some truly horrible things go on at dark websites, so it’s no surprise that many people simply want to shut it down. Others recognise that there is a “dark web dilemma” at play because even shutting down the network will hurt those who rely upon technological systems such as Tor to exercise their basic political rights to free expression and access to information (http://tinyurl.com/hyvam2a). It is a no-win situation.

At the end of the day, specific gateways into the dark web can be shuttered. The Tor Project could be forced to close down, making it harder for its team to maintain the anonymity of the network in the face of an ever-evolving barrage of government and private sector efforts to crack the code of the system.

Over the long-term, however, stopping the dark web is a lot like trying to put toothpaste back into the tube. The technology exists and cannot be unlearned (in fact its intellectual roots trace back to US government research labs). Furthermore, the volunteer network of computers that the Tor browser uses to anonymise traffic is spread throughout countries around the world, so trying to shutter the network would require a globally coordinated effort that is unlikely to succeed.

Shutting down the dark web is not necessarily a good thing either. Sometimes the unfortunate reality is that technologies like Tor are a person’s last line of defence against powerful governments bent upon repression. What we need to do is police the system (as law enforcement agencies increasingly do) to reduce the harm that it can cause, while still allowing it to be used by those that need it most.

Of course, policing is not exclusive to liberal countries. Repressive regimes can, and do, try to block access to the dark web already, while also trying to find ways to crack the system. They will do this whether liberal governments try to limit the harms found in the dark web or not, so that should be no impediment to law enforcers in liberal regimes attempting to reduce the nefarious activity on the dark web.


Eric Jardine is a Research Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.