What is the Dark Web?

Tempted by the dark side? Here's what you need to know about the Dark Web

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With news reports of underground online marketplaces and journalists hiding from government oversight, have you ever wondered, ‘just what is the Dark Web?’ The term essentially refers to heavily-encrypted sites that cannot be accessed via the average browser. As such, these sites are often used as an international black market and as a source for hacked data.

They can have a number of other purposes as well, but, without the right software, you may never know they exist. Here’s everything you need to know about the gnarly, hidden parts of the internet.

What is the Dark Web, exactly?

The Dark Web is a term referring to websites and networks that are heavily encrypted and “hidden” from the average internet user. There are a lot of reasons people do this, but the Dark Web has earned a connotation as a sort of immense black market, one associated with drugs, guns, porn, hacking, and conspiracies.

That said, it’s also a haven for those who really, really like their privacy and aren’t fans of any kind of interference. It’s commonly used for those under strict governments that control free speech and employ heavy regulations.

So, is it separate from the normal internet?

More or less, yes. The data itself still uses the same channels, but the walls of encryption put a clear divide between “normal” internet content and the Dark Web. You cannot hop onto your favorite browser and visit a Dark site any time you want, for instance. Traditional search engines like Google also tend not to index or show any Dark Web content, for a variety of reasons.

Is the Dark Web illegal?

It’s generally not illegal to visit, but obviously it does matter what you do while you’re there. After all, people peddle a smorgasbord of illegal and inappropriate content on the Dark Web — child pornography, beheading footage, etc. — and some people go there to seek that stuff out. Such being the case, you might want to avoid associating yourself with those kinds of people and places.

The most famous example of illegal Dark activity was Silk Road, which used a combination of Bitcoins and the Dark Web to exchange recreational drugs internationally. Law enforcement agencies took down the online marketplace in 2013 and arrested its alleged founder — and again, in 2014 — but similar cartels still operate using the same methodology. Another example was the Ashley Madison hack, which saw a wave of names and information flood the Dark Web, blackmailing and exposing those who used the cheating service — ultimately ending in settlements for those affected. It was illegal in a different way, and harder to pin down.

However, with caution and common sense, you can navigate the Dark Web without landing in any legal trouble. But don’t expect the “I didn’t know I was buying illegal drugs” line to work.

How is the Dark Web different from the Deep Web?

While the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, there’s an important difference: The Deep Web refers to all parts of the web that are hidden away from the average user and not indexed by the average search engine. This includes an immense amount of data, internal copies of various webpages and anything that you need an access code to reach.

So, pretty much every site online has some content that’s in the Deep Web, out of necessity. The Dark Web is only a small part of the Deep Web, with a more focused purpose.

Has it always existed?

Shady internet activities have existed since the public really started using the internet in the mid 90s. But the Dark Web represents the start of a very large, more cohesive use of the internet for these kinds of activities. The term itself gained popularity in the late 2000s and became widely known a few years ago, thanks to government crackdowns on various Dark Web operations.

It’s also been associated with the complicated rise of Bitcoin, as the blockchain-protected cryptocurrency provided an ideal means of exchange for the illicit activities of the Dark Web.

What are the dangers of going onto the Dark Web?

All the common dangers of a traditional black market exist on the Dark Web. To reiterate, you can buy or sell a whole lot of illegal things and get in a lot of legal trouble if law enforcement agencies manage to track you down (which, as noted above, can indeed happen).

However, there are also some unofficial dangers to be a wary of. Many of those who operate in the Dark Web have no problem exploiting you in any way they can — and since many of them are hackers or at least know how to use hacking tools, they can be dangerous.

As a result, there are many tales of blackmail peppering the Dark Web, from people who are somehow identified there, or tricked into giving their information. Downloads also tend to be even more suspect in the dark corners of the internet, so your computer may be in danger as well.

If I want to visit some parts of the Dark Web, where do I begin?

Read up on the Dark Web, and see what you’re in for. Visiting a subreddits like r/deepweb is a good idea, too, as it will allow you to see what people are looking for and what common topics arise in an environment that’s a bit more protected than the actual Dark Web.

To actually get on to the Dark Web though, you’re going to need specialized software and to follow some basic, but important safety and security steps. Read our full guide on how to access the Dark Web to get the full low down on exploring this hidden part of the web.