Due to the popularity of Silk Road the mainstream media has been busily reporting about the “dark” web. If you take the news stories about the “dark” web literally it is a place where child pornography is readily available, hitmen can be hired for a handful of Bitcoin, and terrorists commonly hold secret meetings to discuss their plan blow up the next elementary school. Reality, as is often the case with mainstream media portrayals, is quite different:
Read nearly any article about the dark web, and you’ll get the sense that its name connotes not just its secrecy but also the low-down dirty content of its shadowy realms. You’ll be told that it is home to several nefarious things: stolen data, terrorist sites, and child porn. Now while those things may be among what’s available on the dark web, all also are available on the normal web, and are easily accessible to anyone, right now, without the need for any fancy encryption software.
Despite reports, there are only shreds of evidence that the Islamic State is using the dark web. One apparent fund-raising site highlighted by the Washington Post had managed to garner exactly 0 bitcoins at the time of writing, and this was also the case with another I discovered recently. It’s worth pointing out that both of those sites simply claimed to be funneling the cash to the terrorist group, and could easily have been fakes. The one Islamic extremist dark web site to actually generate any revenue mustered only $1,200 earlier this year. Even it doesn’t explicitly mention the Islamic State.
And yes, child porn is accessible on the normal web. In fact, it is rampant when compared with what’s available from hidden sites. Last year, the Internet Watch Foundation, a charity that collates child sexual abuse websites and works with law enforcement and hosting providers to have the content removed, found 31,266 URLs that contained child porn images. Of those URLs, only 51 of them, or 0.2 percent, were hosted on the dark web.
In other words the big scary “dark” web is basically a smaller regular Internet. What you find on hidden sites, which is the correct term for the “dark” web, is also far more widely available on the regular Internet. Why do sites go through the hassle of requiring visitors to utilize something like the Tor browser then? Because maintaining anonymity for both themselves and their visitors is valuable.
In the case of Silk Road, for example, it was much easier to build user trust by using a hidden site since there was a barrier between the service and the identity of its users. Not only did that barrier protect users from potentially being revealed to law enforcement agents by the site’s administrators but it also prevented buyers and sellers from being able to identify each other. Silk Road was an example of anonymity making things safer for everybody involved.
If you’re of the opinion that buying and selling drugs should result in men with guns kicking down doors at oh dark thirty and therefore what I said above is not a valid justification for hidden sites don’t worry, I have another. Journalists often find themselves in positions where sources demand anonymity before revealing important information. That is why services such as Onionshare, were created:
That’s exactly the sort of ordeal Micah Lee, the staff technologist and resident crypto expert at Greenwald’s investigative news site The Intercept, hopes to render obsolete. On Tuesday he released Onionshare—simple, free software designed to let anyone send files securely and anonymously. After reading about Greenwald’s file transfer problem in Greenwald’s new book, Lee created the program as a way of sharing big data dumps via a direct channel encrypted and protected by the anonymity software Tor, making it far more difficult for eavesdroppers to determine who is sending what to whom.
Whistle blowers are an example of individuals who are less likely to talk to journalists, and therefore blow the whistle, unless their identify can be protected. This is especially true when the whistle blower is revealing unlawful government activities. With access to legal coercive powers it is possible for the state to compel a journalist to reveal a source of information damning to it. If the journalist doesn’t know the identity of the whistle blower, as would be the case if the data was sent via a hidden service, they cannot reveal it to the state no matter what court orders it issues or torture it performs. That protection makes the likelihood of a whistle blower to come forward much higher.
The “dark” web is little more than a layer of anonymity bolted onto the existing Internet. Anything available on the former is available in far larger quantities on the latter. What the “dark” web offers is protection for people often needing it. Like any tool it can be used for both good and bad but that doesn’t justify attempting to wipe it out. And because much of the world is ruled by even more insane states than the ones that dominate the so-called first world I would argue the good of protecting people far outweighs the bad that was happening and still is happening on the regular Internet.