Online windmills: Diving into the dark web

Online windmills: Diving into the dark web

“There are no fish at the bottom of the well,” some people will say. However, there will be at least one person to test this belief. A darknet is a kind of a well, which many are willing to jump into to catch some fish (among other things). But what is it that’s waiting for users at its bottom?

Online windmills: Diving into the dark web

Darknets are parts of the Internet that are hidden from the public. They are based on peer-to-peer architecture and encrypted communication and use non-standard ports and protocols. Darknets are separate address spaces and can be identified by certain domain names. One can access these encrypted parts of the Internet by using specialized software (for example, the well-known Tor Browser or I2P).

When on the dark web, people basically find themselves in an underground city with no apparent limits. Dark web sites use “.onion” addresses and cannot be indexed by regular search engines or without using appropriate software, but one can stumble upon their analogues, with reduced content, obviously. Among other things, there is a catalogue of dark web sites, which can satisfy all kinds of needs.

Three types of webs are usually distinguished: the visible web (regular open access websites), the deep web (partially accessible, mostly corporate resources) and the dark web. Just like dark web sites, deep web sites don’t get indexed by search engines, access to them restricted by a name/password combination; however, no special software is needed to visit them. 

Most people primarily associate darknets with two things—the sale of prohibited substances and that of leaked databases. Each of these activities is illegal and constitutes a criminal offense. Each of them is hard to track down precisely because of how the dark web works. While visiting a dark web site is not considered an offense, the user buying prohibited items will be held legally responsible. 

However, few people know that getting on the dark web doesn’t always or necessarily mean the pursuit of something unlawful, since there are inherently neutral dark web analogues to social media and forums. Moreover, rather popular resources sometimes offer their services on the dark web, too, in order to help users bypass blocks and provide access to people all around the globe. For example, in 2014, the Facebook social networking service (owned by Meta, which is recognized as an extremist organization in Russia, its operations banned) and some media outlets, such as The New York Times, BBC and Deutsche Welle, launched their Tor services. The reason is that darknets mean first and foremost anonymity, since no user information is available, except for the IP address randomly assigned. This is why so many people view the dark web as a space of total freedom that’s not limited by morals or laws. While this fact attracts some, it repels others.

So, what motivates the users who consciously dive into this black hole? On the one hand, as Herodotus said, “if all men should carry their own private troubles to market for barter with their neighbors, there would not be a single one who, when he had looked into the troubles of other men, would not be glad to carry home again what he had brought.” Regular users can indeed find that even the worst behaviors in their life cannot be compared with human sins showcased on the dark web; some may even experience profound disappointment in humanity. On the other hand, getting on the dark web is often a desperate move made by a drug addict or another deeply troubled person who considers him- or herself and his or her desires unworthy of the “bright” side. Offenders who make money on the dark web should also be added to the list, since hackers are its main users. 

Is the dark web a threat? Of course it is. There is no law on the dark web, only rules. It can neither be limited nor blocked, which means that there’s no way to stop the flow of prohibited items. How to fight it then? You can get the answer at the session on “Whirl of the Darknet: Protection from the ‘Dark Forces’ of the Web” at the 3rd Youth Internet Governance Forum, which will take place at the Digital Business Center in Moscow on May 12, 2023. 

The dark web has, in fact, the same effects as addictions. Forbidden fruit is always sweet, especially if curiosity prevails over rationality. However, users do not always think about the consequences of their actions online. This is not even about the criminal code limitations, but rather about morals first and foremost. At the end of the day, “if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” And who knows what it will see.

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