The Not So Dark Side of the Dark Web

I have always associated the Dark Web with illicit and criminal activities, transactions and content. While a side of the darknet violates human rights, it actually promotes and gives access to some of the fundamental rights that humans should have: freedom of the press, freedom of speech and the ability to obtain information. It is important to highlight this advantage of the Dark Web because it is often overshadowed by the criminal content.

 

The Onion Router (Tor) is the most popular web browser used by accessors of the Dark Web. Yet this browser’s purpose was - and still is - not to connect individuals to virtual criminality (Chertoff, 2017). Tor was first conceived of in the 1990s by individuals at the U.S. Naval Research Lab as a means of anonymously accessing free and open internet in locations with extensive monitoring. They came up with the concept of “onion routing” which employs traffic through a layering of servers and encryption and “effectively makes it very difficult to determine the IP address that originally requested a site” (Chertoff 2017). In the early 2000s, after Tor was made a public accessible open-source browser, members of the U.S. Navy stationed around the globe, as well as civilian users which used Tor to communicate information to desired recipients without jeopardizing their location.

 

Throughout the past two decades, we have seen the explosion of internet usage as a means of communicating news and ideas. As a result of this increased accessibility of knowledge and opinions, there has also been an increase of internet monitoring and censoring, especially by oppressive regimes which wish to limit or entirely prohibit their peoples access to the internet. Browsers, like Tor, which allow anonymous access to free and uncensored internet have therefore been used to obtain and release information by activists and individuals “in locations where online censorship [is] heavily enforced or where the threat of prosecution for those who [seek] access to locally illegal information [is] prohibited” (Moore and Rid 2016, 16).

 

guy fawkes mask hanging off a backpack Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels

Chertoff (2017) wrote that the majority of Tor users do not access the darknet for illegal purposes but rather to anonymously access surface websites such as Facebook and other social media platforms. This is either because they have privacy concerns or because they are located in countries which prohibit access to such sites. In fact, the Human Rights Watch and Google promote the use of the Tor browser by dissidents under oppressive governments to bypass surveillance and internet restrictions (Moore and Rid 2016). According to Freedom House as of 2020, the internet in 21 of the 65 nations analyzed are categorized as “not free.” Internet firewalls are used by countries such as Saudi Arabia, China and the United Arab Emirates to restrict internet usage and prohibit access to certain sites. Through the onion routing implemented by Tor, users can “choose an exit node in a country that does not restrict Internet usage”, ultimately allowing them access to sites that are otherwise blocked (Watson, 2012).

 

Egypt and Syria are also included in this list of “not free” internet. In January 2011 at the height of the Egyptian Revolution, the internet played an important role in organizing protests and Tor saw four times as many Egyptian users than before (Watson, 2012). Within days of the protests, President Mubarak disabled internet access in Egypt. Moore (2016) states, “thousands [of Egyptians] successfully used the Tor browser to communicate and disseminate information, in spite of a severe clampdown on the internet.” In Syria from 2011 to 2013, individuals successfully used the Tor browser as a means to anonymously share digital evidence of atrocities committed by the Assad regime (Moore and Rid, 2016). According to the SecDev Foundation, although the Tor browser was blocked in 2013, another more complex Tor application was employed but this data is not public. Therefore, conclusions cannot be drawn as to whether or not users switched to the more complex application to again surpass the censorship.

 

Tor’s anonymity and onion routing has proved very important to political dissidents and their quest for communication with those outside of their home countries. Although the Dark Web is only a very small portion of the World Wide Web, it is not often explored by the millions of average internet users in countries with “free” internet (Chertoff, 2017). It is therefore important to shed light on the “legal” use of the darknet and its benefits for those who cannot enjoy free press and free speech. There is far more controversy surrounding the Dark Web but I hope this article has challenged your perception of the darknet and its usage.

 

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