Drugs, hitmen, and hackers oh my! These spooky ideas are commonly the focal points of recent conversations about the dark web but are not representative of the service as a whole. Many have heard about the dark web and what occurs on it from the internet, news, and television. Although it widely recognized and talked about, the majority of people will struggle when pressed for a concrete definition of the dark web. The dark web is just another part of the world wide web but requires a specially modified browser in order to be accessed. Governments, companies, citizens, whistleblowers, criminals, and anyone else that wishes to browse the internet anonymously use dark web services. Anonymity was the goal when the method of internet communication was created and continues to be the reason people continue to use it. The dark web is a very useful service that should be protected because it provides a decentralized safe haven for anonymity and free speech.
To understand the portion of the internet known as the dark web, one must also acknowledge and understand the other two categories of the internet known as the clear web and the deep web. The traditional form of internet that the common user will initially access is the clear web. The clear web is any website that is indexed(accounted for) by search engine websites like Google, Yahoo, and Bing. Anyone can access clear web pages by using a search engine and a web browser such as Internet Explorer or Safari. The deep web is another section of the internet that the standard user will encounter during a session. The term deep web can be applied to any webpage that can not be accessed by using a search engine. When one accesses a private account on a website for shopping, emails, social media, banking, work, or any other website that stores personalized and/or encrypted information, he/she is utilizing the deep web. The dark web, like the deep web, includes websites that are not indexed by clear web search engines. These two definitions diverge when looking at what web browser is being employed. Instead of a clear web internet browser, an application such as Tor is required to connect to the dark web. The term dark web is best described by Vijay on techworm.net as “the encrypted network that exists between Tor servers and their clients(computers) (Vijay).” Tor, or more specifically, the Tor Second-Generation Onion Router (i.e. the dark web browser), was originally a product of the United States Naval Research Laboratory and runs on the same internet in which we all use(Dingledine). This browsing network was created by the government in order to anonymize internet traffic and prevent attackers from gaining access to private information. The more users who access and route information through the dark web, the more anonymous the service becomes, so the government allowed the Tor router to be open for public use. The conference paper presented at the USENIX Security Symposium in 2004 by Dingledine, R., N. Mathewson, and P. Syverson summed the Tor Onion Router up as such:
“Onion Routing is a distributed overlay network designed to anonymize TCP-based(internet) applications like web browsing, secure shell, and instant messaging. Clients choose a path through the network and build a circuit, in which each node (or “onion router” or “OR”) in the path knows its predecessor and successor, but no other nodes in the circuit. Traffic flows down the circuit in fixed-size cells, which are unwrapped by a symmetric key at each node (like the layers of an onion) and relayed downstream(Dingledine).”
This same system is still being commonly used and is still called Tor. The Tor browser application is free to download and use on just about any computer operating system. An article by Timothy Shim that provides instructions for accessing the dark web describes the Tor browser as “… a version of the popular Firefox web browser, modified to allow users to browse the web anonymously. The browser is designed to block or advise against user attempts to do things that might reveal their identity…(Shim).” However, Tor is not the only dark web browser available. The popular alternative option for accessing the dark web is known as I2P which functions much like Tor. To sum the three definitions up with an example, consider the “sign in” page on a website like Facebook. Because this page is something that can be searched for, it is considered as part of the clear web. The personalized page that one sees after signing in would be considered part of the deep web. Lastly, if the internet session had been initiated by selecting the Tor browser and accessing a .onion website, the user would be using the dark web.
Presently, the dark web has quite the notorious reputation within the public’s eye. The dark web offers users privacy, some view this privacy as a safe haven for free speech while some view the privacy as encouragement to commit cyber crimes. The dark web is quite a polarizing topic because of these contrasting opinions. The issue with the dark web comes down to the question: how much should the dark web be regulated? While websites that do facilitate criminal activity occur on the dark web, these websites are not alone and make up for only a fraction of the internet services that title of dark web refers to. Accessing the dark web is not currently a criminal act, but if a user is caught committing crimes via the dark web, they can be held accountable for said crimes. The most widely known illicit dark web service was known as the Silk Road. The anonymous dark web marketplace had no restrictions which made it a platform for drug sales. The marketplace was shut down by the FBI in 2013, but since then websites copying the same model have been created (Wikipedia). A paper by Claton Davis details a successful investigation that leads to the shutdown of the Silk Road marketplace:
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