With our generation spending more time online and outside, Jessica Stanier takes a look at the hidden network behind the realms of Facebook and Google and asks whether this is a useful tool or a dangerous weapon.
Millennials, Generation Y, Net Generation – whatever you want to call us, we really are children of the internet age. With over 50 per cent of the average waking day now spent on media and communication devices , according to Ofcom, growing up with the internet has dramatically shaped the way we interact in education, work, politics and leisure. But how many of us know about the mysterious hidden network beyond the familiar realm of Google, Facebook, Amazon and Ebay? The dark net is several orders of magnitude larger than our ‘civilized’ surface web. Most of us really only breach the tip of the iceberg.
The dark net, also referred to as the deep web, constitutes the vast majority of the internet. It encompasses everything that is not indexed by search engines. It’s the internet, unleashed. And the ominous connotations derivable from the name “dark net” are no accident. By using anonymous internet browsers such as Tor, users experience with freedom from censorship, surveillance, moderators and traceability. While this opportunity serves as invaluable protection for activists, journalists and their sources, it also inevitably leads to a profusion of highly questionable content and criminal communities. So, is it a weapon or a tool? By taking a closer look at some examples, I would like to suggest that the dark net is a far more morally ambiguous territory than it might first appear.
Take Silk Road 2.0, for instance. The original Silk Road was an online black market, notorious for selling illegal drugs. In 2013, it was shut down by the FBI but, by November of the same year, Silk Road 2.0 had sprung up to take its place. Policing the dark net is an ever-expanding game of whack-a-mole, and any ‘victory’ for the law is sure to be short lived. But examining the effects of having a free online market for drugs, one can see the appeal. Imagine an Amazon for selling drugs – sellers can show photos of their product, buyers can post reviews and ratings, purchases are discreetly delivered to your door and customer satisfaction is guaranteed. Competition drives down prices and forces vendors to uphold quality standards, which in turn reduces the risk of consumers being sold inferior and unsafe product. There were 13,756 listings for drugs on Silk Road 2.0 in October this year. From Fair Trade drugs to prescription pills, psychedelics to stimulants, the laws of supply and demand are brought to a whole new level. Taking into consideration all possibilities, the website even has a code of ethics against the selling of child pornography, stolen credit cards, assassinations and, thankfully, weapons of mass destruction. While Silk Road 2.0 provides an easy online resource for users to circumnavigate the law and there is no way to tell a recreational customer from a serious addict, it removes the need for user involvement in the dangerous politics of local dealers and provides a safer product. It’s not such a simple ethical dilemma.
So if you can buy anything on the deep web, how do you pay for it? Transactions on the deep web, such as those on Silk Road 2.0, are conventionally done via bitcoin. Bitcoin is a decentralised digital currency; a currency free from banks. Anyone can start using bitcoin: there are no prerequisites, it can be accepted all over the world, there are generally lower fees for using it and transactions can be made anonymously. Sometimes described as the digital gold, bitcoin’s open source software incorporates a formula that enforces an upper limit of units. This means that bitcoin shouldn’t lose value due to inflation and it isn’t subject to reckless lending by banks. It’s another example of an online invention that provides a substitute to ‘real life’ systems. Where users lack trust in one structure, such as the current financial climate, they’ll create another.
The dark net also harbours a plethora of hidden communities who’d never make it past the moderators on our ‘surface web’. These are internet trolls on steroids. Neo-nazists, gore pornographers, hit-men – you name it. Journalist Jamie Bartlett spent some time getting to know the individuals behind the hate speech when researching his book, “The Dark Net”. Startlingly, it’s almost impossible to spot these people in real life. Bartlett could have a perfectly amicable conversation about the football results with someone he described as a “shy 30 year old man, who doesn’t really know where his life is going.” But online, like Jekyll and Hyde, a ferocious political extremist hit the forums, spreading propaganda and garnering the respect of his peers. This particular individual preferred to keep his two identities separate. Perhaps in this instance, extremism was an outlet for his frustration. The dark net provided a community which gave his online alias the respect he lacked from the outside world. The essential question is whether these communities really do serve as outlets or whether exposure radicalises people into violent action. To a large extent I would imagine this depends on the individual. Anders Breivik, found guilty of the terrorist mass shooting in Norway in 2011, became convinced of the legitimacy of his actions after spending all his life online. Psychiatrists also found him to have several personality disorders (although not without controversy).
Any kind of freedom can be subject to abuse. Perhaps we are simply ill-prepared to meet the consequences of technological advances in the 21st century. It really is difficult to look at the deep web in black and white terms. Instead, I feel this new kind of freedom magnifies what we already knew about human nature, that necessity is the mother of invention. So is the deep web a tool or a weapon? Like a knife, it’s both indispensably useful and dangerous in the wrong hands. Time will tell.
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