The Not-So-Secret World of the Dark Web

Far below the Web we all know and love, behind the friendly faces of our favorite websites there lies a lurking giant. Many of us know the Web by it’s biggest names – Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc. But what many of us don’t know is that there’s another component to the Web, one that willingly places itself away from the public consciousness. It’s given rise to a platform where people around the world can speak freely without fear of retribution, but it’s also given rise to a platform where people can engage in incredible atrocities outside of the public eye. This mysterious hidden network is known as the Dark Web.

What is the Dark Web?

The Dark Web is somewhat of a misnomer. It’s not a single entity, but rather a collection of websites and Web services that can only be accessed using a specific program or protocol. With most websites, you can open a Web browser such as Internet Explorer or Safari, type in a URL, and load the website without issues. With the Dark Web, most websites are still publicly accessible, but trying to load them in a plain Web browser will fail. Dark Websites sit outside of the public World Wide Web, relying on a completely separate communications method before they can be accessed from your computer.

The Dark Web gets its name not from the nature of its content, but from the nature of the network itself. Most websites that are hosted on the Dark Web aren’t indexed by search engines, and therefore can’t be discovered through Google, Bing, or Yahoo. Unless you discover the URL yourself, it’s virtually impossible to determine that the site exists. The end result is a network that’s completely hidden, but still capable of transmitting data to different users.

The other side of the Dark Web is anonymity. Unlike most websites, where the ownership of the site can be traced back to an individual or company, websites hosted on the Dark Web can be accessed without even knowing where the hosting server is located. A series of encrypted connections between multiple users makes it impossible to pinpoint the location of a website, let alone the identity of its owner.

The Difference Between the Dark Web and the Deep Web

The terms “Dark Web” and “Deep Web” are often used interchangeably. The Deep Web simply refers to websites that haven’t been indexed by search engines. This could include password-protected websites, websites with lots of dynamic content, or websites that serve media instead of text-based content. The key distinction is that Deep Web websites can still be accessed over the World Wide Web, as long as you know how to access them. The Dark Web forms a part of the Deep Web, but they are not one and the same.

Why Is There a Dark Web?

The Dark Web is  ingrained in the foundation of the Internet. During the development of ARPANET, the precursor to the Internet, researchers worked to develop networks that were completely isolated for security purposes. These networks could receive data from ARPANET, but would not respond to requests. Like a black hole, data sent to these dark networks could enter but could not return.

As the Internet saw continued growth, more and more people began using it to transfer information. While most of this information is publicly available, some of it is sensitive or even incriminating. For instance, imagine a journalist reporting on a regime that practices systematic censorship on its citizens. If any of the released information can be traced back to its source, it could cost the journalist his or her life. The anonymity provided by the Dark Web facilitates this transfer without exposing the journalist or the destination.

However, a good number of people use the Dark Web for less altruistic reasons. Privacy and anonymity allow users to speak freely, but they also allow users to share data outside of the scrutiny of government and law enforcement. This has led to the proliferation of hidden underground markets trading in illegal goods and services, all of which have been used as arguments against Dark Webs. Like any tool, Dark Webs can be modified to fit the needs of its users, regardless of their moral standing. The question then becomes whether or not certain kinds of content should be blocked, and if so, who decides what to allow and what to forbid. Ultimately, the responsibility is left with the user to determine whether or not to connect to a website based on the content it provides.

Tools for Accessing the Dark Web

There are a variety of projects that allow you to connect to different Dark Webs. One of the more popular projects is Tor, an anonymity network that masks connections to websites. Tor works by encrypting your connection to a website and bouncing it across multiple routes, preventing any one route from knowing both the source and the destination of the request. Tor allows you to connect anonymously to regular websites, but it also allows you to connect to hidden services hosted in the Tor network itself.

Other popular Dark Web programs include:

  • I2P (Invisible Internet Project), an overlay network providing web browsing, email, real-time chat, file sharing, and more
  • Freenet, a peer-to-peer network that allows you to create your own private darknets among certain computers
  • GNUnet, a framework for  decentralized networking that, like Freenet, allows you to connect to specific computers rather than the general network

There’s more to the Dark Web than can be covered in a single post. As journalists, free speech advocates, and tech-savvy criminals look for new ways to promote their beliefs and conduct their business, you can expect to hear more about the Internet’s hidden underground.

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