A public policy perspective of the Dark Web

Many consumers of the news have heard of the Dark Web. It is portrayed as a den of mysterious and illicit activity. Like most stereotypes, that is a misconception with some truth behind it. To shed light on the Dark Web, one must first understand what it is and how it differs from what most users wrongly consider to be the internet.

Actually, the internet comprises every single server, computer, and other device that is connected together in a network of networks. It can then be divided into two elements: the Surface Web and the Deep Web. The Surface Web is what the average user thinks of as ‘the internet’. It is a collection of websites indexed by search engines like Google, Yahoo, and Bing that can be easily accessed through standard browsers and internet protocols. This may seem like a vast quantity of information, but the Surface Web is just the tip of the iceberg.

The Deep Web is the full body of the iceberg that remains mostly hidden from surface web users. Estimating the size of the Deep Web is challenging, but researchers estimate that it is between 4000 and 5000 times larger than the Surface Web. The Deep Web accounts for 90% of the traffic on the internet, which is a surprise to most users who do not realize they are accessing the Deep Web regularly. Data from sites like Facebook, Twitter, or Snapchat are classified as the Deep Web because it can only be accessed through application program interfaces. Other large sections of data include instant messaging data and file-sharing services such as Dropbox and Google Drive.

As this article defines it, the Dark Web, by contrast, is a very small, hard-to-access portion of the Deep Web. It accounts for less than 0.01% of the sites on the internet: there are around 45,000 Dark Web sites and hundreds of millions of regular ones. As explained below, the only way to access the Dark Web is by using a special browser like The Onion Router – Tor – and, often, a password. The Dark Web is generally anonymous, which makes it a sanctuary for cybercriminals and political dissidents alike. It has remained largely unregulated by the government, and the first step in better monitoring and policing the Dark Web is better understanding it.

The Dark Web or darknet is very often confused with the Deep Web, but the distinction between the two is very important. The Dark Web is a specific portion of the Deep Web and there are a few distinguishing characteristics that a site must meet to be considered a Dark website. The site must only be able to be accessed anonymously through a service such as Tor and cannot be accessed through the Surface Web. The site also must require a user to input its unique Tor address. Some Dark Web sites have an additional layer of security and may also require users to input a password. The reason most of the Deep Web is not considered part of the Dark Web is because it can be accessed through Surface Web applications.

The Dark Web has existed for a long time underneath the surface of the internet. The internet’s development began in the 1960s as part of the U.S. Department of Defense’s effort to network their computer systems, but the internet did not become a household name until the 1990s. The Dark Web itself remained obscure to most people, but it gained a measure of infamy in 2013, when Ross William Ulbricht (alias Dread Pirate Roberts), operator of the Silk Road, was arrested. The Silk Road was a marketplace for illegal goods and services accessed through Tor.

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