Does the dark web actually exist?

There are two tracks. There is the normal web that most people use every day that is easily accessible and indexed by search engines. And then there are the "dark web" hidden websites that don't show up when you search Google and can't be accessed without special software.

Darknets explained

The "Dark Web" is a subgroup of the "Deep Web". The deep web is just that part of the web that is inaccessible to search engines. You won't find these websites using a search engine like Google or Bing, but they are normal websites otherwise. The "dark network" is a smaller part of the deep network that cannot be accessed without special software.

The dark web exists on dark networks that are "overlay networks". They are built on top of the normal internet, but they require special software to access, so they are usually not visible or accessible to people who are not in the know.

For example, the free software Tor hides Darknet. While you can use Tor to anonymize your web browsing activity on regular websites, Tor also offers .onion sites, or "Tor hidden services". These are special websites that can only be accessed through Tor. They use Tor's anonymity to camouflage themselves and hide where the server is located - provided the server is configured correctly. Only people connected to Tor can see them, so they are usually inaccessible and difficult for anyone to keep track of who is visiting.

In theory, it would be impossible to track down these servers and see who is visiting them. In practice, Tor has had some security flaws and Tor hidden services are sometimes misconfigured and can reveal their real location to authorities.

Tor's "hidden services" are the most popular darknet, so that's what we're going to focus on here. But there are other darknets that are meant for other purposes, such as file sharing networks that allow the secret release of pirated software and media files.

What can you find on the dark web?

Darknets hide websites that don't want to be on the normal internet where they can be tracked down. These websites comprise what is called the dark network.

The dark web offers anonymity - both for visitors to the websites and for the websites themselves. Political dissidents in an oppressive country could use the dark web to communicate and organize. Whistleblowers can use sites like The New Yorker's Strongbox to post secrets on the dark web, reducing the risk of them being tracked down. Even Facebook is offering its website as a hidden gate service, making it safer for people in countries where Facebook can be blocked or monitored.

The US government is providing funds for the Tor project to develop software for people in oppressive countries to access information and organization without censorship or surveillance, and the darknet is helping.

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This anonymity enables other types of websites, although that would otherwise be trodden on the normal web. Those that most people would agree with shouldn't exist. You will find websites selling stolen credit cards, social security number lists, fake documents, fake currency, guns, and drugs. You can also find gambling websites and directories of criminal services, including people who make themselves known as assassins. Payment for such services usually involves Bitcoin, a digital currency.

One of the most famous examples of a dark website was Silk Road, a huge black market website where drugs were for sale, with payments in Bitcoin and drugs being sent to buyers through the postal system.

It's worth noting that not everything you see on the dark web is legitimate - most of it may not be, especially the more extreme offerings. Are the criminal services and products actually being advertised, or are they just there to drive people out of their money? Perhaps some of them are traps set up by the authorities to catch people trying to hire assassins, buy weapons, or acquire counterfeit currency.

There are a lot of bad things on the dark web. We are not exaggerating here. Look for lists of Tor hidden services - that is, lists of .onion sites - and you will quickly see that most of them are either criminal or maybe just plain gross.

You probably don't want to visit the Dark Web

So when should you visit the dark web and why? Well ... you probably shouldn't visit at all.

If you are in a depressing country and want to access social networks or news websites that are blocked or censored by your government, the dark web is useful for you. If you're a whistleblower and need to deliver documents to the media while maintaining your anonymity, that could be another great reason to visit the seedy bottom of the internet.

But we don't recommend clicking around and exploring the dark web without a good reason. There's a lot of bad stuff on the dark web - even if a lot of what you find there are scams.

Photo credit: Carolin Zöbelein

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