The Dark Web – what it is, how you get there, what you can do on it

When people speak or write about the Dark Web, the first reference is usually the Silk Road marketplace.

The platform was used, among other things, to sell illegal drugs. In 2013, the FBI shut the website down and arrested its founder Ross William Ulbricht – who was later sentenced to life in prison.

In November that year Silk Road 2.0 was started by former site administrators, but was soon shut down and the operators arrested.

While the Dark Web does play host to illegal activity and illicit trading, it is also a place of safety for those who seek privacy, and for dissidents of oppressive regimes.

With this in mind, we sought to answer three questions:

  1. What is the Dark Web?
  2. How do you get to the Dark Web?
  3. And what can you do on the Dark Web?

What is the Dark Web

The Dark Web is World Wide Web content that only exists in darknets – networks which require specific software or authorisation to access.

These darknets are composed of small peer-based networks, and large, publicised networks and marketplaces – some of which are operated by organisations.

The Dark Web forms part of the Deep Web, which is a part of the Internet not indexed by search engines like Google.

Although it has not been quantified, estimates state that the Deep Web is up to 5,000 times bigger than the “standard” Internet most people access.

Why you can’t find these darknets with Google is due to a number of factors, including.

  • Non-HTML/text content.
  • Content is intentionally hidden and can only be accessed with specific software.
  • Sites require registrations and a login.
  • Content is unlinked.
  • Pages with content varying for different access contexts ranges of client IP addresses.
  • Sites limit access to their pages in a technical way.
AlphaBay Market
AlphaBay Market – Hidden from regular Internet users

An example of this is sites which can only be searched through the Tor network, and have URLs that end in .onion.

Like Silk Road, there are many commercial darkent markets which sell drugs, weapons, malware, bot net attacks, and other illegal goods or services.

The cryptocurrency Bitcoin is widely used for transactions through these marketplaces, as a person who pays in the currency is almost impossible to trace down after the transaction.

How you get to the Dark Web

To access darknets, which form the Dark Web, you need specific software, such as Tor.

Tor is an acronym for The Onion Router and is designed to work with a modified version of Firefox, providing an experience similar to using a normal web browser.

It works off a network consisting of more than six thousand relays – as reported by Tor Network Status – which makes it difficult for users to be traced, hiding their location and usage data.

Once connected to Tor, you are able to access sites that use the .onion top level domain. This is where some of the more questionable marketplaces can be found.

“Regular” websites like DeepDotWeb.com and Darkmarkets.org provide guidance on how to access Tor, which darknet marketplaces are “trusted”, and how to navigate the Dark Web.

Tor
Tor

What you can do on the Dark Web

While much of the focus on the Dark Web is about its illegal marketplaces, other services are also run in this space.

Internet users with concerns about privacy use services like Tor, along with dissidents of regimes who fear being targeted for speaking out.

The New Yorker uses Tor for its Strongbox tip-off service, which is essentially a secure service that allows readers to send sensitive information anonymously to the publication.

The darknet markets, though, are the most publicised facet of the Dark Web for a reason – what you can buy on them is both shocking and downright scary.

AlphaBay Market and Agora Marketplace are two of the more prominent digital “Aladdin’s caves”, both of which offer everything from malware to MDMA.

We registered an account on the two marketplaces – no email address or personal information is required – and browsed their wares, some of which were highly illegal.

Most items can be purchased in Bitcoin and are only available in specific countries.

Items for sale included:

  • 100 MDMA Ecstasy “Lighting Pills” (Australia only) – R9,600
  • 100 Dianabolix 15 Methendianone (DBOL) Steroids – R430
  • Bruce Lee Nunchaku – R1,940
  • YouTube Subscribers (amount not specified) – R311
  • Bitcoin Ransomware – R200
  • A used AK47 assault rifle – R13,500

More on the Dark Web and Internet

The Internet’s hidden darknet

Celebrities, nudity and other ways 4chan drives the internet hype machine

South Africa’s “worst ever Internet law” needs to be fixed

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The Dark Web – what it is, how you get there, what you can do on it