The dark net

The secret realm of the Internet used for both shady dealings and freedom of expression.
01 December 2014

Interview with 

Jamie Bartlett, author of The Dark Net


Dark web


Star Wars famously had a "dark side" of the force and the Internet has its Dark webown equivalent! The Dark Net is a part of the web that's generally hidden from most of us and a place even Google doesn't dare to search! Drugs, weapons and even hitmen can be bought there, although, it turns out, it can also be a force for good. Jamie Bartlett submerged himself there for a year to research his new book, and explains to Kat Arney the inner workings of this shady place...

Jamie -   The Dark Net is a sort of number of sites that you can't really access with a commercial normal browser - Chrome or whatever.

Kat -   So, I can't get to it from Chrome, Firefox?

Jamie -   No and the reason you can't is you need a particular type of browser called a TOR browser.  It stands for The Onion Router which masks your IP address.  We heard about IP addresses earlier and how important they are.  This uses very clever encription to mask your IP address, allowing you to browse the net pretty anonymously actually without anyone knowing where you are.  It also allows you to access these sites that used the same sort of protocols, the same system, to mean that the sites themselves can't be located either.  Essentially, what that means is there's a sort of hidden world of sites without regulation, without censorship.  We don't know exactly how many sites there are - 30,000, 50,000.  I've heard different estimates.  But as a result, I suppose it's as close to the wild west of the internet as you'll find.

Kat -   So, it's basically like putting on an invisibility cloak and slipping into this world where everyone else is wearing invisibility cloaks too.

Jamie -   That's right.  But of course, people use these sites for lots of reasons.  So, there are some people that use the dark net, particularly use this browser quite openly, quite publicly.  And I think they want to talk about what they're doing and the projects they're working on and why they think privacy or anonymity online is important.  It's not quite as anonymous.

Kat -   Not all nefarious.

Jamie -   It's not all nefarious, absolutely, not.

Kat -   So, how was thing actually invented because it seems kind of quite cool and maybe quite useful if you care about privacy or want to do nefarious things on the web?  Where did it first come from?

Jamie -   Yeah, that's right.  Just like the internet itself, it was an invention of the US military who wanted to design a browser that allowed its agents to browse the net anonymously.  I mean, they have reasons for staying secret too.  After a while, the US military realised that it wasn't a very good idea if they were the only people using this because everyone would know who they are.  So, they open sourced it.

Kat -   They're the ones with the invisibility cloak.

Jamie -   Well, that's exactly right.  So, that's not particularly helpful so they open sourced it.  It became a sort of piece of software used for human rights activists and sort of free internet expression groups.  It's won several awards actually for its contribution to sort of democratic freedoms and freedom of expression around the world.  So, it's not a network or a browser that is being designed for criminal purposes.  It's being designed for very positive reasons, but of course, people want to stay secret online for all sorts of reasons, not all of them good.

Kat -   So, let's talk about some of the slightly nefarious things.  I mean, asking purely for a friend, you can buy drugs through the dark web through this kind of system, can't you?

Jamie -   For my book, I did exactly that.  So, there are several sites that are sort of anonymous marketplaces where more or less, anything can be bought and sold using the crypto currency bitcoin and many people use it to buy illegal narcotics.  These sites, there's probably about 20 of them at the moment.  Something like Amazon or EBay.  They have thousands of products, all with product descriptions and user reviews, crucially.

Kat -   People who bought crack also bought crystal meth.

Jamie -   Well, that's absolutely right and the way people use these sites is they're looking at the user reviews to see which products and which vendors are the most trustworthy.  Essentially, what this means is that it's a proper functioning marketplace, a marketplace that acts in the interest of the consumer.  So, it is alleged that the quality, the value for money on these sites is far better than on the streets and the purity of the products you buy there is far more predictable which actually of course is very, very important.  The real trick here actually on these sites is not the clever inscription.  It's customer service! Because in a competitive marketplace with hundreds of vendors, they are desperate for that 5-star review.  And you will not find friendlier, more attentive drug dealers than on the dark net.

Kat -   I mean, obviously, drugs are bad, kids.  Don't go and buy drugs on the internet, but presumably, this might actually go some way to making consumers and the products safer if people do want to do this.

Jamie -   That's a great sort of moral dilemma actually that these sorts of sites throw up and indeed, the whole of the dark net.  This question of anonymity and what we do under it: good and bad, it's a difficult one.  But you're absolutely right.  On the one hand, these sites make more drugs, more available more easily to more people, and that is a bad thing.  But if you are going to buy drugs, you don't have the sort of low level crime associated with turf wars over street corners.  You can be more confident in the purity of the product and frankly, the quality of the product that you're receiving.  So, it's better for the user.

Kat -   And it does seem to me that a lot of the problems with the internet, it's not a technology problem.  It's a human problem and obviously, it's great that people in countries where they supress the internet, they have this way of communicating, not good that people can buy guns and drugs with it.  But obviously, governments I can think, maybe not so keen on this kind of thing.  Are governments trying to crack down on at least the marketplaces or the dark web as well?

Jamie -   Yeah.  They're trying to crack down on the marketplaces of course and understandably and rightfully so.  They're selling illegal narcotics.  But they also tend to recognise particularly in the US and in the UK, the value of this browser, this TOR browser that allows people to circumnavigate censorship and to maintain their privacy and anonymity online which is incredibly important not just in this country, but especially in more dangerous parts of the world.  So, you've got to remember with these sites:  many of them are about - they're whistle blowing, they're human rights activists, sort of revolutionary and freedom fighters.  I think for most people, they recognise that the great mole dilemma is this, that with that freedom, with that anonymity that these bring, all of those wonderful benefits are of course going to be used by the bad guys that want to stay secret for buying and selling drugs or illegal pornography or guns.  And frankly, that is the dark net - all the sort of complexity - moral complexities of human behaviour.

Kat -   Is there any way of regulating or controlling it?  Or is it the users themselves that are policing this place?

Jamie -   There is quite a lot of user community-led policing actually.  It's rather interesting.  So, illegal pornography is often made available on sites here by say, simply, individuals that upload onto a site that they've created.  But people who are part of this community detest that and so, many of them will try and identify where the website is hosted and knock it offline if they can.  So, there is a degree of community self-policing.  It's probably not enough.  But I think that's actually going to be the future.

Kat -   And very briefly and finally, should more of us be using this dark net?  Obviously, not to buy drugs or anything bad, but is it useful for regular people?

Jamie -   More and more people are using it.  More and more people are using it because they care about privacy and they care about anonymity online.  Not just to do good things or bad things, but because they think it's a fundamental right.


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