The Dark Net: Neither entirely dark, nor entirely light

Article published on Oct. 31, 2016
Article published on Oct. 31, 2016

The Dark Web is strange to many, often labeled as a cesspool of criminals thanks to stories like Silk Road, the online marketplace for illegal drugs. But there is a lighter side to this shadowy part of the Internet.

The light in the room is dim except for two big spotlights that point towards a large, circular red carpet and the man who stands on top of it. Behind him, the purple velvet cloth creates theatrical scenery, especially designed to make him the center of attention. Jamie Bartlett dresses casually and talks with a British accent, in a witty and charming tone. His messy hair  does a poor job of hiding the sweat drops on his forehead as he moves around with determination across the stage, speaking about a censorship-free world visited by anonymous users. Bartlett passionately talked for 14 minutes at TEDGlobal London (a branch of the widely known TED Talks) to a fairly clueless audience about one of his main interests: the Dark Web.

 "It’s a natural place to go for anybody with something to hide," he claims. Bartlett is one of the world’s leading experts on the topic that he sees as one of the most "interesting and exciting" places anywhere on the Internet. For him, the Dark Web markets are creative, secure and difficult to censor. "I think that’s the future," he adds, without hiding his excitement. He points to surveys that show how people are increasingly worried about their privacy online and what happens to their data, especially after Edward Snowden exposed the NSA’s mass surveillance of private citizens. For those who worry the Dark Web provides an effective solution.

It has never been more popular, and keeps captivating users that range from political dissidents, journalists and activists to guns traffickers, child pornographers and drug users. While the debate about whether this hidden part of the Internet should be kept in the shadows or not is still on, no one can deny that millions of people see the Dark Web and its Tor browser as the increasingly ideal way to communicate online.

The start of the untraceable net          

In 2004, a group of researchers presented what they had been developing in partnership with the United States Navy: the Tor (short for "The Onion Router") Project, a browser that allows users to anonymously navigate the Internet. Initially, the project was meant to protect intelligence communications from outside parties by encrypting the IP address of the users, then routing it through thousands of other computers around the world that use the same network. It adds layers of encryption to the data, like the layers of an onion (hence the name), until the user’s location and identity are impossible to discern.

But in order to guarantee anonymity through the browser, the Navy needed the Tor Network to have mass coverage. They allowed the system to become open source, which means it can be freely developed by anyone. It didn’t take long until the Dark Web (or Dark Net) started to grow.

A collection of websites and services use Tor to hide their IP addresses, and are only accessible through the Tor Browser. It is very hard to shut down the websites that are hidden on this part of the Internet, granting the users certain anonymity and freedom that they don’t have on the regular Internet.  This means that the Dark Web can be used both for good and bad ends. Edward Snowden’s exposed NSA files started a debate about anonymity and online security of the citizens, but the authorities are also concerned about the amount of criminal activities that started taking place in the depths of the hidden Internet.

Narcos 2.0

A standard white open envelope lies on top of the table. "This one came from Poland," explains twentysomething Andre* as he picks it up. Inside is a bag with eight squares of the popular psychedelic drug LSD. A card protects the content of the envelope, making it look normal and avoid suspicions on what it actually is - illegal drugs shipped from another country.

Andre is a "recreational drug user" from southern Denmark. He has used Bitcoins more than 50 times since 2012, always with the single purpose of purchasing drugs on the Dark Web. He still remembers the old days of the now-defunct website Silk Road, when less popular drugs like the psychedelic 2CB would "only cost £1.40 per trip."

The process of purchasing drugs online is simple. The user pays for them using Bitcoins. The seller encrypts the user’s address and destroys it permanently after the package is sent. Even with prices having "skyrocketed to more than 20 times what they initially were" due to the volatility of the currency, Andre can still buy almost any kind of drug from the comfort of his living room. The quasi-anonymity that the system provides its users is the only appeal for people like him. Drug users who avoid physical interaction between buyer and seller favor Bitcoin over the traditional ways and Silk Road’s massive popularity was a good example of that.

The website was often called the illicit version of eBay and soon gained a monopoly and becoming a major part of online drug trafficking before being seized by the FBI in October 2013. Now, several smaller websites have taken its place.

With a white background, colorful letters in the logo and even an "I’m feeling lucky" search button, the homepage for "Grams" seems to look familiar. But something is not quite right: the tagline is "Search the darknet." Only accessible through the Tor browser, this search engine was designed to look exactly like Google, but instead of saying “Search Google or type URL”, it incites the user to search for cannabis in the Dark Web. When the user does so, dozens of results that lead to different websites pop up.

The drug market "Valhalla" has a clean white design and allows non-registered users to search for products. One vendor called "Mr. Spain" sells 50 grams of "Amnesia Haze Cannabis Weed" for the Bitcoin equivalent of €270. All transactions are made with Bitcoin, the only currency that keeps the users fairly anonymous. "Khaki" is a cocaine vendor from Europe who is selling 3.5 grams of uncut Colombian powder for €220 on the "Dream Market" marketplace, established in 2013. On the same website, "genericvendor" offers to sell 3.5 grams of crystal methamphetamine for 775 Australian dollars. He thoroughly describes his product, writing out all the terms and conditions for the purchase. With a 5-star rating he's clearly popular among users.

However, drugs are not the only thing one can buy in these marketplaces. "InvisibleHand" sells a book explaining how to smuggle goods through postal service, and guns are also popularly advertised. A Glock pistol goes for $850 and if buyers want something cheaper, they can buy a 45mm Winchester Magnum from "markwhite1" for only $500.

 The first study on the Dark Web users, conducted by researchers from King’s College London, shows that the majority (57%) of the sites designed for Tor facilitate criminal activities. However, even the researchers admit that they might not have accessed all material available on the Dark Web because of the way the system is built. The controversy exists because, according to Jamie Bartlett, “there are more drugs, more available, more easily, to more people” and that worries the authorities, leading them to find strategies to take down the websites and arrest criminals like Ross Ulbricht. A year ago, the creator of the online drug bazaar "Silk Road" was sentenced to life in prison after being arrested by the FBI. However, even if the study is correct, there is still a big part of the Dark Web which is used innocently. And that matters because, for some people, the Dark Web is a means of survival.

There is a light

"The media’s exaggeration and narrow focus of trafficking and illicit drugs, as we saw in the Silk Road scandal, is their way of controlling the narrative of events," claims Nozomi Hayase, PhD. The Japanese columnist specializes in freedom of speech, transparency and decentralized movements and believes that privacy is a vital part of free speech. She also argues that those in power are afraid of citizens standing up to what governments are doing and exercising their basic human rights. And that makes the powerful scared of platforms like the Dark Web because they restore people’s freedom. She points out the NSA as an example. It became known that the agency was violating citizen’s fundamental right to privacy, she says, so now "there has to be an alternative way of ensuring these rights." Adopting a censorship-free web and fully-encrypted communications would be an option, in order for the privacy to be woven into technology "as a fundamental right for everyone."

Until that day comes, however, there is the Dark Web. Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, had long been warning about surveillance and so has Edward Snowden. They were both labeled as paranoid, but now more people are actively looking for ways to guarantee their safety and privacy online. Dark Web services started being used not only by criminals and tech experts. Journalists, human rights lawyers and many others are learning how to protect their communications through the hidden Internet.

The Tor Project team confirms this. Everyone can use the browser to "research sensitive topics" in countries where access to certain information is behind a firewall, but also to "skirt surveillance" or "circumvent censorship" in countries where sites like Facebook or YouTube are blocked. Data released by Facebook in April shows that, in March, more than one million people all over the world accessed the social network over the Tor Browser, only 10 months after this service was available to the users.

True freedom, but with a cost

Now, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) use Tor to allow their workers to connect to their home website when they are in a foreign country without notifying everybody that they’re working with that organization. Journalists use Tor and the Dark Web to communicate more safely with whistleblowers and anonymous sources. The San Francisco-based Freedom of Press Foundation, developed SecureDrop: a Dark Web service which writer and activist Kevin Gallagher describes as a "whistleblower submission system." SecureDrop is now being used by over 28 news outlets and activist organizations across the world, including the Guardian and the Washington Post.

This system is responsible for many major stories that have been reported based on a tip received through it. “We have greater transparency today because these sites exist”, claims Gallagher. Tor allows journalists to look into certain subjects on the Internet without leaving an identifiable trace. This means that the target of the story, the Government or anyone else is not monitoring the reporter. Gallagher believes that the Dark Web doesn’t have to be a place of anarchy and lawlessness. Instead, it can be a place where people can “speak freely and access information without censorship”. Even if there is a dark side to this hidden part of the Internet, the debate isn’t new.

Society has always had to think about how liberty and freedom of expression can be "balanced with activity that is illegal," says Gallagher. The criminals will still likely slip up, say something to the wrong person, leave evidence to be found, create witnesses and make mistakes. In an interview with the Telegraph, Paul Sylverson, co-founder of the Tor Project, was confronted with questions about crime on the Dark Web. His response was that in the last century the police was also upset because criminals could suddenly vanish because they had access to cars and the police didn’t. It took some time, but the police caught up and that ought to be the same with the Dark Web. It’s the price we pay for delivering freedom of expression to those who live in an authoritarian regime or dictatorship.

"Using Tor might literally be the difference between life and death," explains Gallagher. As the software improves and becomes more usable, as well as accessible to people in countries all over the world, adoption increases because everyone has something they might want to hide or some site they’d like to visit without being found out. Word travels fast, and the Dark Web’s hidden services are getting increasingly popular, almost reaching the real world in real life situations.

"The Dark Web is no longer a den for drug dealers and a hideout for whistleblowers. It’s already going mainstream," argues Jamie Bartlett. Just recently, the British electronic musician and composer Aphex Twin released his latest album on a Dark Web site. A group of architects in London opened up a Dark Web site for people worried about regeneration projects. There is even "The Torist," the Dark Web's first literary magazine, which aims to introduce the fundamentals of encryption to a broader audience and give people another entry point to the hidden Internet. There are currently between two and three million daily users of the Tor Browser, most of them are legitimate. Bartlett predicts that "fairly soon" every social media company, every major news outlet and most people will be using the Dark Web. "[The Dark Web is] neither entirely dark, nor entirely light. It’s not one side or the other that’s going to win out, but both."