Dark Internet: The Origins of the Dark Web

By Nova BarelaLast Updated Apr 21, 2021 3:12:36 PM ET
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Have you ever opened your phone and scrolled past an ad for something you and a friend were just talking about? Have you ever been pleasantly surprised when a search engine knows what you’re looking for before you finish typing it out? Have you ever been weary of sharing personal information on certain websites? If your answer is "yes" to any of those questions, the dark web can combat that feeling. It can also take you down a bad path.

What started out as a way to reclaim one’s privacy has since evolved into a dark outpost. From casual browsing to illegal activity, the dark web has definitely earned its name on multiple levels. But it’s also where a lot of the phenomenon surrounding cryptocurrency started — and a space where revolutions against oppressive regimes have found momentum.

So, is the dark web a bunch of people with strong, anti-surveillance values? Or are dark internet sites a source of significant problems? This crash course may not answer these questions, but it will get to the root of the matter.

Before the Internet Was Even a Thing: The Dark Web’s Infancy

The dark web was created by the United States government. Similar to World War II militants that experimented with different radio frequencies, the dark web was designed to be a place where a controlled number of people could communicate and not have to worry about who may be watching or listening. The Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) is part of the United States Department of Defense (DOD).

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In the 1960s, they helped create the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, or ARPANET, a place where people could send massive amounts of information rapidly with little time spent waiting. While originally meant to assist with academic research, the department found that the net could assist with war efforts. There was no email back then, so the need can feel strangely like it belongs in a time capsule, but the demand for quick information was very real. So real, in fact, that ARPANET ended up assisting the United States during the Cold War.

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The public was "let loose" onto the internet in 1991. In that decade, terms like "email," "surfing the web," and "chatrooms" entered the cultural lexicon and, eventually, the English language. Even by then, a dark internet had already been established.

In 2002, Tor would change the dark web forever. (This is not to be confused with Tor Publishing, an awesome book publisher that puts out amazing science fiction and fantasy texts year after year.) Basically, Tor is an anti-surveillance software that allows people to be online with less chance of being traced, followed, or seen.

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Still used by folks today, Tor is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that believes in a private internet. Tor can clear your cookies so third parties aren’t tracking your activity and encrypt your traffic three times, among other services.

Defining the Dark Web: What’s What?

Dark internet can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. It’s important to note that the dark web does not equal the "deep web." So, say you go down a rabbithole of Reddit threads, hitting the hundreds of search results from Google or scrolling through a very long comment thread. You may encounter dark things, but you are not on the dark web. Remember that during your next deep dive.

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Dark websites are definitely a thing. A good indicator for telling what part of the web you’re in can be in a website’s domain name. If it doesn’t end in .com, .co, or in other ways you’re familiar with, chances are you could be exploring the dark web.

One place on the internet that would be considered deep web as opposed to dark web would be places like 4chan and 8chan. While those places may have been sources for a lot of controversy and illegal atrocities, they were both considered a part of the regular internet as opposed to being dark internet websites.

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It’s important to remember that dark internet browsers also exist. This matters because accessing a webpage on the dark internet through a regular browser like Google or Firefox means you could still be surveilled. That defeats the whole point of being on the dark web in the first place and could lead to trouble.

In looking at how you access the dark web, one must consider the cords that their devices are plugged in to. The use of dark fiber cables can allow users for a clutter-free web experience for a faster, more discreet experience. Typically these are utilized by businesses, but if someone wanted to go dark, this would be something to consider. Dark fiber pricing is usually done through leasing from service providers. Since dark fiber ensures that a business can almost have the power of their network infrastructure, it could be worth the price.

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Bitcoin and Other Dark Deceptions in Today’s Landscape

Cryptocurrency has been blowing minds since the first bitcoin was mined in 2009. It had a massive effect on the dark web. Bitcoin’s ledger makes it difficult to track transactions. Prior to crypto, monetary exchanges over the internet were hard to pull off. Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies make it much easier. But when finances are untraceable, it’s easier to commit tax fraud or fund illegal weapon markets, human-trafficking networks, cartels, unfavorable political candidates, and other organizations that aren’t helping anyone.

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The dark web saw an increase in popularity in 2013 when Edward Snowden leaked classified information through Wikileaks. Surveillance and the National Security Agency (NSA) were hot topics at the time and many folks turned to the dark web in the hope of feeling safe. This fear was heightened in 2018 when net neutrality was repealed.

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Activity on the dark internet skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Surprisingly, much of the planning for the January 6 insurrection at the United States Capitol did not use the dark web. Most of it happened in plain sight.

Instead of turning to the dark internet, many people combat this by purchasing VPNs, or virtual private networks, which help enhance one’s privacy online. Sales of VPNs are rising astronomically, so it will be interesting to see how they develop over time.

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The Dark Web of Tomorrow (bolded subsection)

What the dark web ultimately comes down to is privacy and censorship. People deserve their space, but the dark internet has also been a space for harmful or illegal things. It is possible to be free while in a regulated environment.

With ongoing scandals from ubiquitous internet places like Facebook, who seems to be having a scandal every few months between the Cambridge Analytica scandal and its beef with the Australian government, the dark web can seem like an appealing place to be. Sales of personal data could be on the rise, so it’s good to keep that in the back of your head as you surf and browse.

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For Black Lives Matter activists to folks seeking asylum at the United States border, dark internet websites could end up doing some good, much in the same way the dark web helped activists during the Arab Spring. As the internet makes its way into our phones, our refrigerators, our watches, and anywhere else one can imagine, perhaps there will be more efforts to regulate who can access your internet activity. Consider purchasing a VPN. Or perhaps unplug from the internet for a while rather than going, as they say, "full on dark."