The virtual wilderness of the darknet

Most internet users have probably heard of the Darknet, a side of the internet that allows felons to be involved in heinous activities without being held accountable because they are able to work under anonymity.

Many argue that it is not inherently evil, that it can be used for the greater good, such as giving people a medium of expression under regimes that force you to forfeit your privacy. But is there any truth to that?

The Darknet is a hidden computer network containing unindexed webpages that can only be entered with specific software such as Tor (The Onion Router) that allow users to roam anonymously.

Tor works by encrypting the user’s information by relaying it through numerous servers across the world, encrypting the IP address again and again before it reaches the site the user wishes to see. It essentially layers the user’s identity like an onion, hence the name.

Tor, however, does not allow you to see everything available. Some webpages are hidden away and would require a “key” to locate and enter. This works by utilising a peer-to-peer computer network that limits contact from everyone online to just people that you know. This could be an example of how the network is self-regulatory.

“It is important not to confuse the internet with the World Wide Web. The Web is a medium to access information that is available on the internet.”

It is kind of like a virtual dirt road not listed on the “map” of the internet. It is estimated that up to three million people use Tor every day.

If you compare that statistic to the 3.5 billion searches processed by Google every day, it puts into perspective how big this hidden world really is.

But the Darknet is just a corner of the dark web (general term for the part of the web that cannot be reached by the commercial internet) that is 400 to 500 times larger than the internet so there is a lot of space for the Darknet to grow.

However, the volume of internet users interested or actively using the Darknet is increasing, with websites such as darknet.org.uk garnering hundreds of thousands of views on how to work the system through tips and tricks.

Darknet.org.uk has been online since 2000 and although they are not the “official” representative of the actual network, they have created a subculture that dedicates itself to monitoring and utilising the Darknet.

It is important not to confuse the internet with the World Wide Web. The Web is a medium to access information that is available on the internet.

There are many reasons why people may want to evade censorship by using the Darknet; these can range from major crimes such as drug smuggling and hiring hitmen to accessing free speech data.

Since before the idea of the Darknet was conceived, almost all governments spied on their subjects in order to remain in power and regulate the activities taking place. They still do to this day and will continue to.

This has meant that in every government, there are individuals and groups who have been censored for many reasons. It could be that they disagree with the authorities due to discrimination and thus created a take-down resistance.

Whistleblowing is an example of that. It is when an individual exposes information or activities of organisations that are considered unethical to the public.

The reason as to why whistleblowers may resort to utilising the Darknet to reveal this information could be due to prosecution from the government and although many governments have laws promoting whistleblowing such as the British Public Disclosure Act 1998, they will sentence anyone considered a threat to the state or its interests.

Jamie Bartlett, Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media, says: “The Darknet is one of the most interesting and exciting places anywhere on the net.”

He explains that although innovation occurs in big businesses and universities, a lot of society-changing ideas have happened on the fringes. Bartlett expands that the “pariahs and outcasts” that live on those fringes are often the most creative.

But we must consider the truly dark side of the Darknet. A large portion of its users use the network as a black market to sell and broker transactions covering drugs (15 per cent of all sales), weaponry (1.4 per cent), child pornography (2.75 per cent) and much more.

The way users can put through transactions is by using bitcoins to ensure anonymity. Kyle Terry, an expert of the Darknet, stresses that the main reason people even consider the Darknet is because they don’t want anyone to know their virtual activities.

In this world of anonymity, anything can go wrong. In late 2016, a 33-year-old man spent almost $2,000 on weaponry and drugs and was intending to buy more until he fell for one of the traps set by the FBI in America.

The last gun that he bought led the police straight to the house listed as his delivery address. He was then interrogated and it was later discovered that he was plotting to kill his own family.

This isn’t an isolated case. There are many stories where people have been caught committing fraud and buying child pornography.

You have to know someone to know about the URL and you’d require a password to get in most of the time. The password and even domain names constantly change as to prevent foreign invasions.

Another way that it is regulated is by the traps set by organisations like the FBI to locate criminals. A lot of users are aware of these traps and the fact that you cannot distinguish the real content from the fakes forces some users to become more cautious.

“Law enforcement can’t prevent it. Look at the recent take down of pirate bay URLs. Take down a major host and it’s like chopping the head off a hydra; multiple replacements pop up.”

The legality of the Darknet is in a grey area. It is neither legal or illegal but many governments are debating whether to outlaw it due to the nature of some of the content that it harbours. Nonetheless, it could be argued that if the public cannot use it then the police force shouldn’t either.

An anonymous user active on a Reddit thread for the Darknet states that: “Law enforcement can’t prevent it. Look at the recent takedown of pirate bay URLs. Take down a major host and it’s like chopping the head off a hydra; multiple replacements pop up. Silk Road went and now there are 30 markets instead.”

However, user Synth3t1c on Reddit says that there are numerous reasons why the Darknet will become obscure in the future such as its accessibility and name: “Darknet – what do you think of when you hear that? Darkness + Internet. Most convey darkness with something negative – the black market, for example; hell isn’t lit up like heaven, now is it?”

The Darknet is a network that has revolutionised the definitions of virtual freedom of speech and privacy as it perpetuates the idea that governments have no sovereignty over anyone online.

Just like the commercial internet, the Darknet has been used to commit activities that are extremely horrendous but it can also be used to promote virtuous social ideologies that have been oppressed in real life.

Roderick Graham, a journalist for the Observer describes it best when he says that it “should be understood not as a crime-ridden ‘Wild West’, but rather as a ‘wilderness’.”

 

 

 


Featured image by Roland Molnár via Flickr CC