The darknet rises: unravelling the web’s underbelly
This week the FBI arrested Ross William Ulbricht, whom it claims is notorious online as the Dread Pirate Roberts, and shut a hub of alleged illegal activity. But many other sites could take its place online
Tor users can browse the regular internet – or “clearnet”, in privacy parlance – securely, but the network can also be used to set up “hidden services”: a server delivering web pages that can’t be accessed by regular browsers, such as Chrome or Internet Explorer, and can be found only by other Tor users.
There are other anonymous networks, such as Freenet or I2P, that use different approaches, but in recent years Tor became so big that it is virtually synonymous with “darknet”.
(As is the fashion in the techno-lexicon, there are some distinct concepts with similar names: a darknet is an anonymised network, such as Tor or Freenet; the “dark internet” refers to that portion of the internet that can no longer be accessed, usually because of technical problems or physical decay of internet infrastructure; and “deep web” refers to the vast amount of data on the internet that can’t be trawled by search engines.)
Networks such as Tor are at the centre of a struggle about the future of online privacy. The scale of it has become clear only in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations of vast US and UK internet surveillance. There is an outspoken techno-libertarian element whose distrust of government agencies has been vindicated by the revelations, and anonymising technologies are seen as a key countervailing force to the threat of surveillance.
Tor’s anonymising network is used for vital and legitimate activities, but, given their level of anonymity, darknets are also a natural home for unsavoury activities and other criminal behaviour that can’t be readily discussed in an ordinary forum.
That much was made abundantly clear with the arrest, last month, of Eric Eoin Marques, an Irish-American man who was described as the “largest facilitator of child porn on the planet” by the FBI, which is trying to extradite him to the US from Ireland. Marques ran an Irish-based web-server company called Host Ultra Limited, and allegedly also operated Freedom Hosting, a “hidden services” provider that by some estimates hosted nearly half of the content on the Tor network, including the Silk Road and numerous child pornography sites. After Marques’s arrest, Freedom Hosting was shut down in August.
But there is no shortage of opportunists willing to take Marques’s alleged place, just as the Silk Road has any number of imitators on different networks ready to step into the void that might have been left by Ulbricht’s arrest. The darknet, it’s clear, is not going to conform to the rule of law any time soon.