The darkness changes everything. It turns sunlit cities into moody habitats, and transforms benign objects into mysterious apparitions capable of scaring children from twenty paces.
It even changes the internet.
Add the word “dark” to the word “web”, and many people envisage a mysterious wasteland filled only with depravity and the worst human desires.
Of course, there is some horrendous content down in the depths where web browsers fear to tread.
But the Dark Web is also home to many benign sites and services. It also has some unique benefits for consumers who value their privacy…
Hello darkness my old friend
Firstly, it’s important to dispel a few preconceptions about the Dark Web.
It’s not illegal. In fact, it was developed by the American military, and remains partly funded by the US Government to this day.
Secondly, it doesn’t require specialist software to access it. Installing the Tor browser is no different to installing Firefox or Opera, though its sluggish performance may shock you.
Thirdly, logging onto Tor doesn’t instantly expose you to sordid content or offers of niche services.
Other than The Hidden Wiki – a sub-surface Wikipedia – most dark sites have to be tracked down through bulletin boards. There’s no all-encompassing search engine here.
Indeed, to borrow an advertising strapline from a well-known cigarette paper manufacturer, the Dark Web is what you make of it.
These are some of the things you might expect to find…
.onion URLs. Named after the complex route data follows between source and destination, .onion websites prevent third parties monitoring who’s viewed what.
Tor itself is an acronym of The Onion Router – so called because of its multi-layered nodal structure, rather than because it’s likely to make you cry.
Privacy-oriented search engines. Tor used to have its own built-in engine, but this has now been outsourced to DuckDuckGo.
Despite its abstract name, this privacy-focused search engine dovetails with Tor’s focus on privacy. There are no cookies, searches aren’t remembered, and results are totally private.
Dissident platforms. One of the reasons the American government continues to part-fund Tor is its recent history of supporting democratic uprisings.
Valuable data may be uploaded anonymously by citizens of repressive states. Tor was crucial in orchestrating the 2011 Arab Spring, and other anti-governmental rebellions around the world.
Undercover journalists. Journalists would be lost without Tor, since its randomised data pathways make it impractical for interviewees to be traced or identified.
That makes it a natural platform for contacting whistleblowers, or anyone who might be harmed or endangered if the information they were releasing could be attributed to them.
Uncensored discussion forums. Moderator-free discussion forums achieve robust levels of debate unimaginable on Reddit or Facebook.
Many people enjoy arguing and debating without censorship. And when China clamped down on VPN connections in 2015, people turned to the dark side even for mundane discussions.