The Darknet is where users can communicate using encrypted messages. Users can also buy or sell with complete anonymity using the Darknet. It’s been called the ‘Wild West’ of the Internet because operating in the shadows of the Darknet are criminals, extremists, and trolls. The Darknet is also known as the Dark Web, but, where did the Darknet/Dark Web come from and how does it work?
Firstly, the Darknet is not a place you can go to but a term that describes parts of the Internet that hide your identity and location. It is like walking around the streets with a mask on and having no recognizable characteristics that anyone can recognize you by. Essentially, you are invisible. The Darknet’s infrastructure was created back in the 1970s at the same time as the internet was emerging, but to utilize it, you needed special Darknet software. The United States Naval Research Laboratory (USNRL) created one of the first examples of Darknet software back in the early 2000s. This Darknet software is called Tor and remains the most popular Darknet software to this day.
So, why was the Darknet created? Well, it was created to provide the US Navy’s intelligence officers with the means to maneuver through the internet without being recognized or traced. In other words, for US state security.
Understanding the DarkNet
To get an understanding of what the Darknet is really like, we need to explore it firsthand. So, if you download Tor you will see that it looks like a normal web browser and seems to behave like one too. You can visit any site you want to, but unlike normal web browsers which register your IP address straight away, the Tor browser bounces back your request to enter the site. This is done via several computers based around the world encrypting and decrypting your identification as you use it so that no one knows where the request is coming from.
When you can browse the Internet anonymously, certain websites become accessible that were not accessible before, eg the infamous Silk Road. Silk Road became notoriously famous as it was one of the first online black markets where users could buy illegal drugs, weapons, and child pornography. The founder, Ross Ulbricht, was arrested in 2013, two years after creating the site, and sentenced to life in prison for money laundering, drug trafficking, hacking, and fraud.
Soon after Silk Road 2.0, its successor, was shut down, along with similar sites such as ‘Black Market Reloaded’ and ‘Project Black Flag’. Allegedly, the FBI hacked Tor as well resulting in the browser’s usage dropping by nearly half. This gives many people the impression that authorities are fighting back. But, the truth is very different. Shutting down one or two online markets has simply cleared the way for other dealers to start breaking into the market and creating their own Darknet sites.
Now then, if you do not want to use the Tor browser, there are also I2P or Freenet and instead of Silk Road 2.0, there are now Dream, Agora or AlphaBay which all provide the same services. However, the Darknet is not just an online market for illegal buying and selling. The Darknet has a much darker side as it is also exploited by radical extremists to communicate and spread propaganda. Islamic State allegedly recruited individuals to brainwash them into terrorists.
Darknet Crime versus Protection
Before we all get crazy thinking every activity on the Darknet is illegal or terrorist-related, we need to know some other truths. Tor receives about 60% of its funding from the US State Department and the Department of Defense to act as a secure network for both government agencies and political dissidents fighting oppressive regimes. This protects US agents and US secrets and the general public. Since the Darknet was created and used extensively over the last decade or so, it has empowered political activists to spread news during various uprisings including the Arab Spring.
The Darknet also facilitated whistleblowers to release information and encouraged them to do so. The Darknet works also as a tool to help journalists uncover other truths as well. Wikileaks is a classic example of this although some argue that the activities of Julian Assange and others placed agents at risk of arrest and death in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
These days, news organizations such as the New York Times and The Guardian all host Darknet drop sites for uploading anonymously leaked tips and documents. Furthermore, the Darknet has also helped many victims of domestic violence to hide from online stalkers. The Darknet has also facilitated ordinary citizens to surf the web without being tracked by commercial advertisers or even governments across the globe.
Our conclusion about Darknet
All of this poses every one of us with a great dilemma regarding the Darknet. If government agencies try and succeed in shutting down the Darknet and the criminal activity that it supports, they will also be preventing anyone who will be using it for positive purposes and especially social benefits. The big question therefore remains: Is Internet freedom together with privacy for legitimate and sometimes life-saving reasons, worth protecting while the Darknet facilitates, at the same time, this enormous criminal underworld to exist and operate alongside it? And finally, who is responsible across all four corners of this planet?