Fundamentals of the dark web

By Angela Okeke-Ramos

The internet is formed of multiple layers. Similar to the ocean only a fraction of these layers have been explored. While most users are satisfied with content available on the outer layer of the internet; i.e the surface web, some wish to go further and beyond. Known as the dark web, the deepest layer of the internet is known to be a safe haven for illicit activities. However, it is difficult to gauge the true extent of criminal activity in the dark web due to its anonymity and encryption. Using academic research and media reports, this essay will look at how the dark web emerged along with the technology that enables online anonymity. This essay will also highlight what the dark web is and is not in a social context. The social costs of the dark web will also be explored. Theoretical perspectives relating to criminology will also be discussed in order to understand why and how the dark web is linked to criminality.

Tor browsers use onion routing technology to keep information private. The inception of this technology has enabled online anonymity. According to research by Chrane and Kumar (2015), onion routing prevents the transport medium from tracing the identities of those involved in a chain of communication. The software knows simply that communication has occurred but with no knowledge of what was actually communicated by who. Theoretically this would safeguard political dissidents, journalists and whistle-blowers from having their identity exposed. The creators of TOR believed this sense of security enabled true freedom of speech and expression. As such the dark web has opened up a very liberating experience for those seeking anonymity online (Kumar, 2015). The dark web has also been used to enable free speech and for the dissemination of propaganda in various instances.(Zahibimayvan et al., 2019). However the dark web also unintentionally enables crime to thrive as malicious users, emboldened by anonymity, are led to commit crimes. As noted in a report funded by the congressional research service on the dark web in 2015, it was estimated that 30,000 hidden services were announced to the Tor network daily (Finklea, 2017). This number nearly doubled in the two years that followed with around 60,000 hidden services announced per day. Research from Owen and Savage (2015) indicates that a majority of these hidden services cater to various illicit activities.

Child pornography is the most common crime on the dark web. Owen and Savage’s (2015) research indicates that around 83% of hidden requests on the dark web were to access child abuse websites. In the first study of its kind conducted by researchers in Kings College London, it was found that 57% of sites on dark net TOR browsers facilitate criminal activity including drugs and child pornography (Focus, 2020). The internet’s shadowy underbelly is a section of the internet Google cannot crawl as stated by Gehl (2018) and so individuals who would have never stumbled upon such hidden services, are encouraged to explore this via the web.