What Is the Darknet?
Most people are confused about what exactly the darknet is. Firstly, it is sometimes confused with the deep web, a term that refers to all parts of the Internet which cannot be indexed by search engines and so can't be found through Google, Bing, Yahoo, and so forth. Experts believe that the deep web is hundreds of times larger than the surface web (i.e., the Internet you get to via browsers and search engines).
In fact, most of the deep web contains nothing sinister whatsoever. It includes large databases, libraries, and members-only websites that are not available to the general public. Mostly, it is composed of academic resources maintained by universities. If you've ever used the computer catalog at a public library, you've scratched its surface. It uses alternative search engines for access though. Being unindexed, it cannot be comprehensively searched in its entirety, and many deep web index projects fail and disappear. Some of its search engines include Ahmia.fi, Deep Web Technologies, TorSearch, and Freenet.
The dark web (or dark net) is a small part of the deep web. Its contents are not accessible through search engines, but it's something more: it is the anonymous Internet. Within the dark net, both web surfers and website publishers are entirely anonymous. Whilst large government agencies are theoretically able to track some people within this anonymous space, it is very difficult, requires a huge amount of resources, and isn't always successful.
Onion Networks and Anonymity
Onion networks keep you anonymous online.
Darknet anonymity is usually achieved using an onion network. Normally, when accessing the pedestrian Internet, your computer directly accesses the server hosting the website you are visiting. In an onion network, this direct link is broken, and the data is instead bounced around a number of intermediaries before reaching its destination. The communication registers on the network, but the transport medium is prevented from knowing who is doing the communication. Tor makes a popular onion router that is fairly user-friendly for anonymous communication and accessible to most operating systems.
Who Uses the Darknet?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the onion network architecture of the darknet was originally developed by the military—the US Navy to be precise. Military, government, and law enforcement organisations are still amongst the main users of the hidden Internet. This is because ordinary internet browsing can reveal your location, and even if the content of your communications is well-encrypted, people can still easily see who is talking to whom and potentially where they are located. For soldiers and agents in the field, politicians conducting secret negotiations, and in many other circumstances, this presents an unacceptable security risk.
The darknet is also popular amongst journalists and political bloggers, especially those living in countries where censorship and political imprisonment are commonplace. Online anonymity allows these people, as well as whistleblowers and information-leakers, to communicate with sources and publish information freely without fear of retribution. The same anonymity can also be used by news readers to access information on the surface web which is normally blocked by national firewalls, such as the 'great firewall of China' which restricts which websites Chinese Internet users are able to visit.
Activists and revolutionaries also use the darknet so that they can organise themselves without fear of giving away their position to the governments they oppose. Of course, this means that terrorists also use it for the same reasons, and so do the darknet's most publicized users—criminals.
Accessing the Darknet
As I said in the introduction, accessing the hidden internet is surprisingly easy. The most popular way to do it is using a service called Tor (or TOR), which stands for The Onion Router. Although technically-savvy users can find a multitude of different ways to configure and use Tor, it can also be as simple as installing a new browser. Two clicks from the Tor website and you are done, and ready to access the darknet. The browser itself is built on top of the Firefox browser's open-source code, so anybody who has ever used Firefox will find the Tor browser familiar and easy to use.
The Tor browser can be used to surf the surface web anonymously, giving the user added protection against everything from hackers to government spying to corporate data collection. It also lets you visit websites published anonymously on the Tor network, which are inaccessible to people not using Tor. This is one of the largest and most popular sections of the darknet.
Tor website addresses don't look like ordinary URLs. They are composed of a random-looking strings of characters followed by .onion. Here is an example of a hidden website address: http://dppmfxaacucguzpc.onion/. That link will take you to a directory of darknet websites if you have Tor installed; if you don't, then it is completely inaccessible to you. Using Tor, you can find directories, wikis, and free-for-all link dumps which will help you to find anything you are looking for.
Another onion network is The Freenet Project, which offers similar functionality but also allows for the creation of private networks, which means that resources located on a given machine can only be accessed by people who have been manually placed on a 'friends list.'
Another privacy network called I2P (the Invisible Internet Project) is growing in popularity. Although Tor still has many users, there seems to be a shift towards I2P, which offers a range of improvements such as integrated secure email, file storage and file sharing plug-ins, and integrated social features such as blogging and chat.
Using a VPN for Added Protection
Many Tor users also like to add an extra layer of protection by connecting to Tor using a virtual private network, or VPN. Although no one can see what you are doing online when you use an onion router, surveillance entities can see that you are using Tor to do something. In 2014, Wired UK reported widespread substantiated speculation that the NSA was tagging Tor users as extremists or persons of interest ("Use privacy services? The NSA is probably tracking you"). Although that is likely a very long tag list and there is no concrete evidence about what is done with it, it is understandably something people want to avoid. Using a VPN to connect to Tor means that nobody will be able to see that you are using it, and is therefore seen as a good solution to this problem.
Here is an interesting read if you want to learn more about VPNs and using these two systems together: Combining TOR with a VPN.
My Meanderings on the Darknet
I should make it clear from the very start that I am a beginner—a n00b, if you like, far from being a seasoned veteran. Having said that, here is my beginner's perspective on what I've found.
Diversity and Strange Contradictions
One of the things which immediately struck me about the darknet was the unusual juxtaposition of different users on the websites I found. In some ways, the dark web is a very idealistic place. You will find a lot of political writing (particularly of the libertarian, anarchist, and conspiracy-theory varieties), but also some mainstream liberal and conservative stuff.
I found it very strange that one of the main themes of the writing I saw was 'freedom of information'. The idea that information should be free and available to all seems to be very dear to the netizens of the dark web, as does the idea that governments and big business are threatening this. I found this very strange coming from a group of people for whom hiding and encrypting their own information seems to be such a major obsession. I also found it common for websites to have one section preaching high ideals and filled with moralistic exhortations, and then another filled with links to criminal enterprises. The publishers of these websites seemed either unaware of or unwilling to confront these contradictions.
The fact that so many of the dark web's users are enemies also leads to a strange dynamic. Governments, terrorists, law enforcement, and criminals are amongst the biggest users of darknet communications. I was tickled to see website security experts and criminal hackers sharing the same forums to discuss their common interests in computer security whilst hardly recognising that they are nemeses.
You Can Buy Anything With Bitcoin
The darknet's large criminal marketplaces are well known. Here, you can buy everything from drugs to assassinations. One of the first sites I came across purported to be run by a hit man offering his services to anyone willing to pay. Personally, I don't believe it. This site was probably set up as either a police sting or by a conman who will just take your money and run (there are many, many times more scammers pretending to sell illegal items than there are people genuinely selling illegal stuff in places like this).
The famous criminal marketplace Silk Road was recently taken down by a major police operation which made it into the international press. Last night it took me five minutes to find links to Silk Road 2.0, as well as other similar marketplaces. The most commonly traded illegal items appeared to be hacked PayPal accounts, drugs, fake passports, and other IDs.
All of these businesses accept only bitcoins because they can be used to conduct entirely anonymous transactions.
The future of the anonymous internet lies in cryptocurrency markets.
It Looks Like the 1990s in There!
There are very few professional-looking websites in the darknet (other than those run by a criminal enterprises, of course). Most sites are created by amateurs, and many are self hosted by people running the site on their own computer. Also, some web technologies do not work when you are using Tor. Flash, which, among other things, is used to play videos on YouTube is a glaring example. Also, accessing websites using Tor takes longer than on other browsers, and accessing sites hosted on Tor is even slower.
All of this means that using the darknet is very much like time-traveling back to the internet of the 1990s. The sites you visit have basic designs, no advanced modern features, and are slow to load. When they load at all, that is. Many sites just fail to load, possibly because they are hosted by some kid in his bedroom who has turned the computer off, or it could be because they have additional security to only allow certain people in. In any case, it's all very retro.
Cryptocurrencies and the Dark Net
Just as the darknet played a big role in the early development of the increasingly popular digital currency bitcoin, it seems that cryptocurrencies will play a major role in the future development of the darknet.
There are now several projects seeking to use the power of digital currencies to build new 'privacy networks' (which I think is the proper name for things like Tor) as well as other privacy-centric and censorship-resistant web services. Cryptocurrency and privacy networks share a lot in common already—they are both so-called 'distributed computing' projects which require a network of computers owned by private individuals to operate rather than a single, powerful web server owned by a company. In the case of privacy networks, these computers are called nodes, and are usually maintained by volunteers.
These privacy networks are extremely slow and unreliable because there are much greater incentives to use the network's resources than to provide resources to the network. Finding enough volunteers is difficult, and if they were run in a centralized way by a single company, they would not be able to provide the same privacy and anti-censorship effects.
One solution to this is to monetize people's involvement with providing darknet services by integrating them with a digital currency. These digital currencies operate using a distributed accounting ledger, and people are rewarded for helping to maintain this system, using newly created coins. Combining the two would allow the new coins to go to people whose computers are not only providing accounting services for the currency, but also privacy services to the darknet system.
The first attempt at this was a project called Namecoin, which is a digital currency a little bit like bitcoin, which you can use to buy and sell things or to transfer money to people anywhere in the world with minimal fees. It can also be used to create website addresses ending in .bit. These websites cannot be censored the way a government or internet service provider can censor a regular website by blocking access to it, because the location is not a static address on a single computer, but instead is distributed across the network. Namecoin also has the potential to be used for personal identity management, which could lead to email and other communication apps. The easiest way to start visiting .bit websites is by installing the Free Speech Me browser plug-in.
Another interesting project which is still in its testing phase but has already generated a lot of interest (and investment) is the SAFE Network and Safecoin. The SAFE Network is a fledgling privacy network integrated with cloud services and its own cryptocurrency, Safecoin. SAFE stands for 'secure access for everyone'.
Safecoin 'farmers' would run a network node on their computer, and would be rewarded for all of the resources they provide to the network, including disk space, processor power, bandwidth, and so on. In addition to building up a privacy network, other users would then be able to use Safecoins to use these resources for anything from cloud-storing files to hosting websites and apps. The SAFE Network is being developed by a company called MaidSafe, which has already sold off their ownership of the network to early adopters through a 'pre-sale' of Safecoins.