Large parts of the Internet are not traceable by your average search engine, Google. Beneath the radar lurks the “deep web”, and beyond that, the “dark web”.
When Google indexes so many billions of web pages that it doesn’t even bother listing the number any more, it’s hard to imagine that much lies beyond its far-reaching tentacles.
Beneath, however, lies an online world that few know exists. It’s a realm of huge, untapped reserves of valuable information containing sprawling databases, hidden websites and murky forums. It’s a world where academics and researchers might find the data required to solve some of mankind’s biggest problems, but also where criminal syndicates operate, and terrorist handbooks and child pornography are freely distributed.
At the same time, the underground web is the best hope for those who want to escape the bonds of totalitarian state censorship, and share their ideas or experiences with the outside world.
The first thing to grasp is that, while the elements that make up this other web have aspects in common, we’re not talking about a single, unified entity. Those in the know will often talk in terms of the deep or invisible web, darknets and the dark web, and you might think these are all the same thing. In fact, they’re separate phenomena, albeit linked by common themes, properties or interests.
The deep web isn’t half as strange or sinister as it sounds. In computer-science speak, it refers to those portions of the web that, for whatever reason, have been invisible to conventional search engines such as Google.
There’s nothing necessarily secretive about the majority of this hidden content. When asked if the deep web harbours criminal or illicit activities, Dr Freire explains that “underworld” content is just as likely to be found on the “surface web”, and describes the deep web as “a more benign place” than some imagine. There are, however, areas that are more intentionally secretive, and this is where the deep becomes the dark.
Often associated with small file-sharing networks, the term darknet refers to any closed, private network that operates on top of the more conventional internet protocols. To join these hidden internets, all you need to do is install a program, such as Freenet or I2P, and browse away, secure in the knowledge that you’re almost impossible to trace.
On Freenet, nobody knows who you are, or what you’re looking at. Each system also contributes hard disk space, which is occupied by a data cache containing chunks of heavily encrypted data that the program can reassemble into Freenet forums and sites.
A trip through Freenet can be unsettling. It isn’t hard to find sites offering hard-core porn or such charming tomes as The Terrorist’s Handbook, Arson Around with Auntie ALF and the Mujahideen Poisons Handbook, along with copyrighted software, video and music to download.
And while we didn’t come across any child pornography during our time on Freenet (for obvious reasons, we didn’t look), it’s widely acknowledged that it can be found.