For the majority of people reading this article, the surface web is all they know.
Most of us are adept at using the HyperText Transfer Protocol across the World Wide Web, accessing billions of websites with conventional domain names like .com and .co.uk.
However, there are two additional layers lurking below the surface web, beyond the reach of search engines.
The deep web contains back office functionality like corporate intranets and the product databases powering ecommerce websites, which have no reason to be displayed on Google.
And then there’s the dark web.
Let’s immediately dispel the myth that the dark web is home to nothing more than pornography, drugs and hitmen.
Yes, there is some truly horrifying content down there. But there’s far more to the dark web than illegal images, ketamine wholesalers and undercover police officers setting honeytraps.
The dark web is home to pro-democracy activists, investigative journalists (including the occasional Broadband Deals contributor), and an army of free speech advocates.
It was co-developed by the American military, receives part of its annual funding from the US Government, and offers an outlet for material which doesn’t belong on the surface web.
However, you won’t find any of the dark web’s erotic fiction portals or bitcoin cleaning services via Google.
You’ll need to download the Tor app onto a mobile device, or install the equivalent browser on a desktop computer.
While the desktop platform is perfectly serviceable, the Tor app will be most people’s preferred path to the dark web thanks to its relative simplicity and accessibility.
Putting on extra layers
Dark web content is located at obscure alphanumeric URLs ending in the .onion suffix.
Tor is an acronym of The Onion Router, named after the layered way in which data is transmitted through an array of global server nodes to maintain the anonymity of individual users.
The Tor Browser app makes light work of bouncing information around these nodes, though webpages load slowly and video content may not play on ADSL or 4G connections.
Installing the app is no different to any other software available in the Google Play or Apple App stores.
Having launched Tor and tapped ‘Connect’, relays are established before an unassuming page encourages people to ‘explore privately’ – without giving any explanation of how to do so.
Enter a search term into the top bar (featuring the words ‘about:tor’), and results will eventually display courtesy of the DuckDuckGo browser.
Ironically, these will almost always be surface web links. To delve deeper, you’ll have to run a search like ‘dark web links’, and look for directories or websites.
Often called Hidden Wikis, these will also be surface websites, with addresses ending in .com and .org.
However, the links they contain will only work through Tor – if they work at all.
Many posted links will be inaccurate or redundant, so look for articles and wikis which have either been updated recently, or which show status updates beside each URL.
There’s no obvious distinction between a surface website and a .onion site, other than the address displayed in the top bar.
Onion website quality varies hugely, from slick interfaces written in flawless English through to sites which resemble something an ESL student might have thrown together in the 1990s.
Of course, quality control counts for little beyond the reach of search engines.
There’s no WHOIS database for dark website owners, and very few sites have contact details or About Us pages, so purchases are essentially based on trust.
That’s especially true since many goods and services are priced in untraceable bitcoin – the dark web’s signature currency.
Despite these differences, the Tor app has many features familiar to surface web browsers.
You can store bookmarks (though this could help to identify previous activities), change the default language and accessibility options, and so forth.
You can even make Tor the default browser on that device. That’s good from a privacy perspective, but ruinous in terms of speed given today’s multimedia-driven surface websites.
When you’re finished exploring the Dark Web, simply choose Quit from the Tor app’s drop-down menu to return to more familiar territory.