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The Dark Web: A History Lesson



The Dark Web A History Lesson

Before we can discuss the history of the dark web, first we need to understand what the dark web is, and how it is different from the deep web.

Dark Web vs Deep Web

The dark web (sometimes called Darknet) is a part of the world wide web that isn’t indexed by traditional search engines and so can only be accessed with specialized software. Because the dark web is hidden from search engines and provides anonymity to its users, its a hotspot for illegal or nefarious activity. You can find almost any illegal activity taking place on the dark web including the sale of drugs, hiring of hitmen, extreme porn, banned books and media, and so on.

The deep web is defined as “the portion of the Internet that is hidden from conventional search engines, as by encryption; the aggregate of unindexed websites.” This sounds pretty similar to the dark web so far, right? That’s because they are similar in the sense that the dark web is part of the deep web, but the deep web isn’t necessarily the dark web. Confused? We’re here to explain.

The internet you interact with every day via search engines is all part of the surface web. These websites have been indexed by search engines. The size of the internet is growing all the time and according to the indexed web contains at least 5.31 billion pages. While the surface web accounts for the majority of internet traffic daily, it may surface you to know that it’s tiny compared to the size of the deep web. It’s difficult to come up with an accurate number for unindexed web pages but some estimates suggest that the deep web could account for 99% of the internet. It’s also estimated that the dark web only makes up 0.01% of the deep web.

You may be wondering what that 99% of deep web can possibly be, and the truth is most of it isn’t top secret mind-blowing data. The vast majority of these sites are databases that belong to companies or governments, private web pages, your online bank records, and so on. Google’s robots can still crawl and find these pages but will be instructed in code not to index them or take action.

The Dark Web Timeline

In March 2000, Freenet was launched. Freenet is an open-source software that is used for data sharing while being protected by stringent privacy protections.  Freenet exists on a decentralized network and is designed to allow freedom of speech without censorship and allow for total anonymity. Freenet still exists and remains popular today, but since it came before The Onion Router (Tor), it was the first area of the internet that attracted “dark” or illegal activity.

On 20 September 2002, the Tor network was created by computer scientists Roger Dingledine and Nick Mathewson. The majority of the funding for the Tor project came from the US Naval Research Laboratory. The Onion Router is the most popular means by which people today access dark web sites. Tor has several search engines or hidden wikis that users can use to navigate their way around the dark web and find the kind of sites they’re looking for. You can find a list of these sites on the surface web by clicking here, but you won’t be able to see any of the webpages without installing and using Tor.

In 2004, the Naval Research Laboratory released the code for Tor under a free license, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) began funding Dingledine and Mathewson to continue its development.

In December 2006, Dingledine, Mathewson, and five others founded the Tor Project, a non-profit organization to help maintain the network.

In 2010 Ross Ulbricht started developing the Silk Road, an online drug market place hosted on Tor. There is still some debate about whether Ross, a young Texan man, was fully responsible for the development and maintenance of the site and the role he played.

In February 2011 the Silk Road was launched.

In October 2011, the Silk Road ran into some technical problems since the site was being run on several servers without the owner’s permissions. Silk Road admins decided to invest in some real infrastructure for the growing marketplace.

In 2013 the FBI was able to determine the site’s real IP address and the hunt was on for the owner of the marketplace.  The FBI has been investigating the site since 2011, using FBI agents to order items or liaise with admins pretending to be smugglers. Ross Ulbricht, under the pseudonym Dread Pirate Roberts, was unknowingly communicating with FBI agents posed as smugglers and even asked one to conduct a hit on an employee who stole bitcoin from the site. The FBI even staged this murder as part of the investigation.

By October 2013, the FBI was convinced that Ulbricht was guilty and he was arrested on charges of hacking, dealing drugs, money laundering, conspiracy to traffic narcotics, and attempted murder.

In January 2015 Ulbricht’s trial started where he admitted to founding Silk Road but said he transferred control of it a short time later. He claims the pseudonym Dread Pirate Roberts was not him. All murder and attempted murder charges were dropped.

On 4 February 2015 Ulbricht was found guilty of seven charges and sentenced to two life sentences plus 40 years in prison. His family continues to run the Free Ross campaign aimed at reducing Ross’ sentence which they view as needlessly harsh.

In 2016 all the original Tor Project board members resigned and were replaced by a new team of board members.

Since the closure of the Silk Road marketplace several other drug marketplaces have tried to replace it on the dark web, sometimes even using the same name. However, the FBI has been quick to shut these down, or the people behind the projects can’t support the maintenance of the operation.

What Can You Find on the Dark Web?


The Onion wikis contain website links for Hitmen where someone could anonymously pay for someone to be killed. The cost of hiring a hitman runs into the thousands and even tens of thousands and customers pay using bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies. However, there is little evidence to suggest that any of these services are real which makes sense when you think about it. If you pay $10,000 for a hit on someone and the hitman doesn’t follow through, there’s nothing you can do since you can’t tell the police the hitman has defrauded you. This is why nearly all, or probably all of these job postings are just a way to scam people out of money.

It comes down to risk vs reward here. A scam artist can pretend to be a hitman and get thousands of dollars, or he can actually kill someone and get thousands of dollars. If they can get the money without committing a crime and putting themselves at risk, they will.

Drugs and Weapons

Drug marketplaces have always been a popular and thriving part of the dark web. Silk Road is probably the most well known, but others have come after it, such as Alphabay which was one of the largest and most profitable marketplaces. Alphabay was shut down in 2017 by the FBI who have developed a skill for successfully shutting down these marketplaces almost as soon as they pop up. Instead of the thriving drug marketplaces, we used to see on the dark web, we now see sites pop up only to be taken down shortly after.

People are still buying drugs on the dark web, of course, but not at the same rate they used to be. One of the key successes of the Silk Road or Alphabay is that they functioned like the for drugs. The marketplaces had a reputation of being safe (as safe as buying drugs online can be), and users could leave reviews for vendors. Now that websites selling illegal drugs don’t stay up for long, people are less likely to engage with the marketplaces in case it gets taken down in a few days and they lose their money.

Guns and other weapons can also be bought and sold on the dark web. You may think it would be the sale of unique weapons that really has a home on the dark web, but you’d be wrong – 64% were for handguns.

Michigan State University researcher Thomas Holt said:

“Instead of exotic or rare firearms, we saw handguns — the kinds of weapons someone in the U.S. could buy from stores or vendors with a license. Additionally, the price points of these guns weren’t drastically different than what you’d find if you were buying legally. These observations beg the question, ‘why the dark web instead?’”

Extreme or Illegal Porn and Red Rooms

As you are probably aware the dark web functions as a place to share content that the rest of society won’t tolerate, such as cruelty porn and child porn. Freenet, in particular, is known for being a hotbed for child porn. We won’t go into details because some things are better left unsaid but the dark web proves rule 34 (if it exists, there is porn of it) to be true.

Red Rooms are the live streaming of the torture and murder of an individual to interested onlookers. Red Rooms get a lot of attention in surface web forums and social media platforms because of their heinous and shocking nature, but like hitmen, there isn’t much evidence they exist. Firstly streaming a video requires a lot of bandwidth which can be tricky on the dark web. Secondly, live streaming only works if there are people there to watch and the Dark web isn’t something people tend to trawl all day and it isn’t well connected overall. On your phone, you may get a notification that Molly from your boxing class is live streaming on Facebook and you can tune in if you catch it on time, but no such infrastructure exists on the dark web so people would be staring at block camera feeds all day waiting for something to happen.

Counterfeit money

There are places on the dark web where you can buy counterfeit money such as US dollars, Euros, the British Pound, Australian Dollar, Canadian Dollar, and more. Some sites offer a range of denominations and others will only offer one, for example, a £20 note. The quality of counterfeit notes can vary immensely due to how they’re made. Counterfeit notes tend to be duplicates of real notes but to make them undetectable they have to pass anti-counterfeit measures like the pen test or the UV light test. Making the notes indistinguishable from their legal counterpart requires time and money which means a lot of counterfeit note producers cut corners and the result is obviously fake looking notes.

Cloned Cards and Stolen Credit Card Details

Fraudsters can buy lists of stolen credit card details from the dark web as well as cloned card details. People are often quick to cancel stolen credit cards, but it can take a while to realize your card has been cloned which is why this is big business on the dark web.

Your Data

Ok, maybe not your data, but it’s certainly possible. When hackers hack company databases for personal information, they often go straight to the dark web to sell it. This personal information can be extremely valuable for scammers committing identity theft or for use in social engineering scams.

Fake Branded Products

You can buy products that sport a popular or expensive brand for a fraction of the cost of buying the real thing, for example, Rolex watches.

Why Were Freenet and Tor Created?

You may be wondering why these places exist at all. If the FBI can shut down nefarious dark web marketplaces, then why don’t they just close down Tor altogether? The are some legitimate reasons to have an anonymous and unrestricted space.

  1. Tor and Freenet can help protect people who would otherwise be targeted by their government and gives them a platform to share their story. This applies to journalists, dissidents, and whistleblowers.
  2. Protect internet users privacy from marketers and identity thieves. Internet service providers can sell your internet browsing records to marketers.
  3. Research sensitive topics or circumvent censorship – it gives people in countries with a heavily censored internet experience a way to research the truth about topics.
  4. Protect freedom of speech, civil liberties, and the right to information – The idea behind this is that you should have the right to free speech without the fear of censorship. While it can be argued that censorship can be a good thing, like censoring torture, child porn, or racist propaganda, where do you draw the line? Governments often censor that which they deem harmful to society but different governments have very different views on this. China censors its internet much more heavily than the EU does. For example, in China, any mention of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests is censored and the majority of the popular have no idea what occurred there.

Mike Godwin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit digital rights group said:

I worry about my child and the Internet all the time, even though she’s too young to have logged on yet. Here’s what I worry about. I worry that 10 or 15 years from now, she will come to me and say ‘Daddy, where were you when they took freedom of the press away from the Internet?

Experienced British technology journalist and online reporter

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