On Thursday night I watched a scary Channel 4 news report about the 'Dark Web', whatever that is. It sounded like something new and scary, which would probably creep into my bedroom to rape and murder me and all my loved ones in the dead of night. According to the report, the Dark Web operates beyond the purview of governments and law enforcement agencies; a kind of anarchic, 'Mad Max' world where you can find anything from drug deals to human trafficking and child pornography. Much was made of the fact that the Dark Web is not indexed by search engines. In addition, the denizens of the Dark Web and the website owners are untraceable due to the use of proxy servers in the Tor network, which exists to provide web users with anonymity.
|Photo by soulrider.222|
Sounds pretty shady, but is the Dark Web really a danger to civil society, as the news report and some politicians would have us believe? First, does it matter that there is a portion of the web not indexed by search engines? Well, no. It turns out that most of the internet is not on any search engines, simply because its content is not in html or maybe it's just not well connected to other sites. This has always been the case. So the Dark Web is just a tiny corner of what's called the 'Deep Web', which simply refers to the unindexed part of the internet. Most people have accessed the Deep Web, whether they know it or not, since it contains government and academic databases, documents, private web pages and forums. Much of it is owned by government agencies, corporations, the military and security services:
This video gives you an interesting tour of the Deep Web.
No one is very sure how big the Deep Web is, but most observers agree that it is by far the biggest part of the internet: much bigger than the bit you can search through Google and so on. The Dark Web appears to be that tiny portion of the Deep Web that isn't currently owned by official agencies but has been set up by various groups which the media or authorities consider to be subversive, criminal or ne'er-do-wells, such as hackers, political activists and genuine criminals (apart from rogue bankers and CIA agents). As a friend of mine put it, the Dark Web is just the internet equivalent of the back streets of Camden after dark, but probably a lot safer. After all, no one has actually died or been physically raped on the internet - except in online games - unless you count frape.
Cool, so there's an E-Bay for cocaine! Let's buy some! Oh, hang on. How do you know you're not buying it from the police? You don't. If you're anonymous, then so are they. At some point, a real-world transaction has to take place. You have to give them an address. You'd have to be pretty naive to give your home address to some totally faceless entity on the 'Dark Web', so you'd better have a false one in order to take delivery and you'd better make sure that isn't under surveillance. Frankly, I wouldn't bother.
In fact, if I were a law enforcement agency or intelligence service, I'd be all over the Dark Web like an outbreak of herpes in a brothel. I'd be setting up trojan web pages and false fronts all over the shop to entice the unwary. That's because I'm a devious little bastard - and so are they.
The Channel 4 report also mentioned bitcoins, as if they were some kind of criminal device which needs to be banned, because transactions on the Dark Web are usually made using this internet currency. Bitcoins are mostly used for perfectly legitimate transactions. Being anonymous, they are basically the internet version of cash. In the real world, cash is also anonymous and actually less traceable than bitcoins, but no one suggests we need to ban cash, although most shady deals seem to involve suitcases full of the stuff.
So, this report seems to fit into that category of news reports which seek to undermine public trust in the internet generally and feed a desire for greater regulation and control. The timing is interesting, since both Dark Web and Deep Web are as old as the internet itself, but there has been a great deal of publicity about hackers from Anonymous and Lulzsec recently, as well as much hand-wringing by legislators eager to exert more control over the internet.
However, I do know of another kind of dark web that exists in the real world, which is used exclusively by the powerful and wealthy, beyond the purview of state regulation, in a domain of near total secrecy. It is used to facilitate tax evasion and avoidance, human trafficking, drug running, arms deals, fraud and all manner of criminal activity. Colonel Gaddafi used it to rape his country and stash the proceeds in secret trust funds which may never be uncovered. Other tyrants use it to do exactly the same and our own Chancellor, George Osborne uses it too. In fact, most wealthy people use it to keep their financial affairs secret and avoid paying tax. It is the web of offshore tax havens, many of which are strongly connected to and largely controlled from the City of London. The UK itself has some of the most secretive trust laws in the whole world, making it a magnet for Russian oligarchs and petty dictators from all over the place.
This is why a more precise term for a tax haven is a 'secrecy jurisdiction'. They rely on secrecy and that is what makes them perfect for shady dealing. Most importantly, unlike the Dark Web, law enforcement and tax authorities have almost no access to this network. You see, anonymity is considered a good thing, if you happen to be really wealthy or one of the world's political elite. Openness, like tax, is for the little people.