The week of September 28, 2014

The promise and pitfalls of the Deep Web

By Austin Powell

There’s no greater saga of the Internet era than that of Silk Road.

The notorious black market experienced everything you’d expect out of a Hollywood thriller: murder plots, drugs, lies, heists, betrayal, and behind it all, a bootstrap entrepreneur—alleged owner/operator Ross Ulbricht, currently awaiting trial in New York—building an international drug empire out of nothing, like Walter White with a laptop. The FBI believes the site cleared roughly $1.2 billion in sales in just three years.

It’s small wonder why, then, it’s the basis of a new Spike TV show produced by Gary Oldman, a one-man show in the U.K., and a forthcoming documentary by Alex Winter (yes, the dude from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure)—or why it’s referenced in the latest season of House of Cards.

But the rise and fall of Silk Road is about far more than just drugs. It’s about the promise and pitfalls of the Deep Web, and what happens when you give people the security of anonymity. (A quick note on terminology: The Deep Web refers to any portion of the Internet not indexed by search engines like Google. That includes everything from corporate databases to The Kernel’s WordPress. The Dark Net is a subset of the Deep Web, where Tor’s hidden services and I2P sites reside. In other words, it’s where the headline-making activity takes place. For the sake of clarity and simplicity, we’ve elected to use the broader term here.)

There’s a common misconception about the Deep Web—that it’s the underbelly of the Internet, a secretive and uninviting realm where only crooks and thieves dwell. That’s simply not the case, at least not for all of it.

“People want you on the Deep Web,” Alex Winter told The Kernel. “They want to be found, and they’re there to be found. They’re not hiding: There’s anonymous and there’s private, and there’s a difference.”

To mark the first anniversary of Silk Road’s closure, The Kernel dove deep into the Deep Web to find the people and the stories that are not only worth capturing but are essential to our understanding of the Internet and society as a whole.

Aaron Sankin delves into the online black markets for personal data, Carola Frediani examines the new crop of search engines built for navigating the Deep Web, and Patrick Howell O’Neill captures the deep-seated paranoia and concern at the heart of the development of Tor, the anonymizing service that powers the Deep Web.

What we found was that even in its darkest of corners—as in O’Neill’s exposé on the shocking, secret history of child pornography online—there is some semblance of order and community amidst the chaos.

“If you could somehow filter out all the explicit content and language relating to child sex, however, online pedophile pornography communities might seem astonishingly familiar,” O’Neill observes. “Members form friendships, rivalries, cliques, and all the layers of social complexities you would find in any other online community.”

It’s important to note that the anonymizing power that allows child porn and drug trade to flourish on the Deep Web is also what allows people around the world to evade censorship and communicate in dire times without fear of reproach. You can’t have one without the other, and for this issue, we made it a point to highlight both sides of that difficult balance. O’Neill—one of the foremost reporters on the Deep Web and the lynchpin to this issue—reports on how Tor is being used by transgender service members, while Jillian C. York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation further stresses its importance for journalists and activists.

All told, one year after the seizure of Silk Road on Oct. 2, 2013, The Kernel found that the Deep Web is bigger than ever. There are more storefronts, better security measures, and nearly three times as many products on the market. To see it in context, check out these incredible infographics by illustrator J. Longo.

Suffice to say, what hasn’t killed the Deep Web appears to have only made it stronger.


Illustration by Jason Reed