The Internet “Underground”
One thing that the average college student is an expert at doing is mindlessly surfing the web, whether it be catching up with (or stalking) friends on Facebook, posting a stream of life changing updates on twitter, watching funny YouTube sketches or videos of human-sounding goats, absorbing whole seasons of shows on Netflix in one night, or mindlessly scrolling through cute animal blogs on Tumblr. According to the Socially Aware blog, 56% of internet users had social networking profiles in 2012, in comparison to the 24% in 2004. Although there are plenty of uses of the internet, the average user spends 14% of his internet time on social media websites (Delaney, Salminen, and Lee). However, a smaller percentage of those “casual” internet users know about the underground, off the beaten path, and sometimes illegal side of the internet. These users lurk in very specific forums, chat rooms, and blogs pertaining to their shared passion of anything from graffiti and vandalism to sexual promiscuity to databases and instructions on drugs of all sorts to how to’s on embezzling, hacking, and scamming. Even though most people use the internet for the basic social networking and movie watching, there is a constant stream of active users that are participants or at least fans of the aforementioned topics. How has the free sharing of information helped facilitate the “openness” of topics formerly never discussed in certain places and deemed taboo? What type of information can be dug up that is hidden from the general public? What are the implications of this changed communication structure to the future of information sharing and societal relationships in general? These are the types of discussion questions that this research paper will contribute to.
It is a widely accepted belief that our society as a whole is becoming freer due to the ease and speed of information sharing. We are freer in our ways of speech, in the types of clothing we wear, in the occupations we choose, in our sexual orientations, in our religious and spiritual beliefs, and in the things we choose to discuss out loud in a public forum. One of the biggest opportunities to express freedom is online because people have an opportunity to post whatever they want, no matter how out of place or improper it could be to discuss in public. For any invention that has the ability to provide a use that has not been available before, there will always be an accompanying “subculture”, or an alternate use that was not originally intended. As a result of this, there will always be nooks and crannies of the internet that require a certain level of knowledge to understand or gain access to. These “internet undergrounds” can automatically become safe havens that can provide an anonymous outlet, like-minded members, and easily accessible information. Even though one may not directly participate, it is still important to remain aware of the workings of the internet subculture because it has the power to change the structure of communication in our society in multiple ways and allow us to discuss our views freely and anonymously.
A perfect example of an internet subculture whose main goal is to remain very well hidden from the mass consumer’s eye by being available to only a select group of people is an anonymous black market called The Silk Road, which was launched in February of 2011. On this illegal version of Amazon, a user that knows how to access the marketplace can order any drug imaginable with Bitcoins, which is anonymous and untraceable online cash, and have it discreetly shipped by the seller to a location of their choosing. Virtually any drug can be purchased on this black market site, including cannabis, ecstasy, psychedelics, opioids, and stimulants (Broderick). Navigating to The Silk Road has been made complex so it can fly under the radar of the average internet user; it must be accessed via a Tor browser. Created by the United States Naval Research Laboratory, the original intent behind Tor was to protect government communications. The main purpose of Tor today is to increase anonymity online by providing a, “network of virtual tunnels that allows people and groups to improve their privacy and security on the Internet” (“Tor: Overview”). Tor users are able to browse websites without revealing their IP address and locations, leaving no electronic trail. Via a Tor browser, users can log onto The Silk Road and make illegal purchases with Bitcoins, eliminating a financial trail as well. In theory, this whole system sounds very discreet, and since all the sellers ship from the US, packaged are not x-rayed or opened because they do not have to go through Customs, which checks incoming mail from other countries. According to the Metro newspaper, “Bitcoin is a decentralized virtual currency, meaning neither does it exist in the physical world, nor does it have a central bank such as the Federal Reserve or the Bank of England” (“What is Bitcoin?”). However, the downside of not having a centralized bank is drastic fluctuations of the Bitcoin. In February of 2013, one Bitcoin was worth $20, then in April it reached a record high of $266 before dropping a few days later to $105 (Rushe). Although this system is unstable and can make the user vulnerable to hacking if they do not know what they are doing, many can argue that the premise of virtual money is appealing because it can act as valuable investment when Bitcoins rise. Since it is a currency independent of the regulations of the government and financial institutions, it is up to the users to make sure it is properly kept track it. When purchasing Bitcoins, you are not giving any money to the government, which is appealing to Libertarians who want an unregulated free market economy.
The Silk Road marketplace is a prime example of an internet subculture that can be accessed with Tor, and The Silk Road is an example of the type of sites hidden in the highly controversial Deep Web. All internet content can be divided into the Surface Web and The Deep Web. The difference between them is the former consists of static pages, “they reside on a server waiting to be retrieved, and are basically html files whose content never changes”, and the latter consists of dynamic pages which are housed in databases and cannot be indexed by search engines (Iffat, and Sami). There are a series of blocks set up for the sole reason of keeping the casual internet browser out: “it is hard to find what you are looking for, you need more than a passing knowledge of computer science, and you will have to write down the exact addresses of the sites you manage to find, and stock them in your bookmarks” (Albarracín, and Holloway).
The Deep Web could be considered as a major force in the restructuring of the information sharing system. Since it was created in 1994, the Deep Web “contains 7,500 terabytes of information, compared to 19 on the Surface Web”. Under the surface, it houses an enormous amount of data and resources generally missed by the public eye. The Deep Web can be a dark and dangerous place depending on what type of information the user is looking for. There are websites for hiring assassins, instructions on how to firebomb and napalm, and sites about staring a holy war against The United States. The is a website called Brimstone Entertainment that allows strippers, prostitutes, and escorts to list their “services” and fees. In the Crime Networks, users can discuss their exploits and also provide tips to others. It is also almost impossible for the government to track and shut down these types of sites because of the high-anonymity levels and the sheer size of the Deep Web. The issue that this raises is whether this “internet underground” does more harm than good. There have been expressed fears about terrorists exploiting this structure to find out sensitive information and use it to do harm. Weapons can also be purchased on the Deep Web through The Armory, an online weapons store that mails out the weapons in pieces to be assembled by the user. Although any determined criminal could find a way to get their hands on a weapon, The Armory opens up another option for them, and “if even a single gun is shipped to a single person, we’re living in a society in which things that kill people can be moved around the world with zero accountability” (“The Secret Online Weapons Store”).
On the other hand, is there a positive side to the Deep Web? Criminals are drawn to the Deep Web because it is difficult to trace, but one does not need a criminal intent to find something useful. Even though most articles discuss what terrible things can be found on it, including child pornography, a positive side of the Deep Internet does exist. There is a website on the Surface Web named the Complete Planet whose goal is to discover different Deep Web databases and categorize them into tabs like agriculture, art & design, literature, music, technology, religion, and sports. Listing over 70,000 searchable databases, “the value of [this] is extremely high. Each database is very focused in nature and the sheer numbers of them indicate that there are hundreds if not thousands in any given subject area” (“About CompletePlanet”). As a result of the availability of such specific information, many more possibilities could be opened up for research. Institutions of higher learning already have access to many databases, but of the academic kind. If scholarly databases like Academic Search Premier, LexisNexis, and JSTOR are used by college students and professors for research, what would happen if all college students and professors had access to the Deep Web? Would our research evolve because we would have the availability to dig even deeper in search of relevant information? Would institutions become even more prestigious for teaching its’ students to find out information like even before? One academic search engine already exists that provides students with limited access to the Deep Web, it is called Scirus. To protect students from the dangerous websites, it only provides access to scientific content, but this does little to limit the scope of information. With Scirus, a student could search over 167 million websites, journals, and databases. A quick search on this search engine pulled up 2,556,411 hits for “developmental psychology”, yet the same search on Academic Search Premier pulled up only 40,894 hits. This goes to show that the Internet really is like an iceberg with the majority hidden underwater and just below the average user’s radar.
Just like the Deep Web could be used in academia to pursue in-depth research, it could also give people access to free, unbiased, and most importantly, anonymous communication in countries with strict censorship like Vietnam, Syria, Iran, China, and Saudi Arabia. The Deep Web can provide a gateway to other perspectives and news that would be censored otherwise. For example, in China you cannot find any information on the situation in Tibet, freedom of speech, and instances of police brutality. In Saudi Arabia, 400,000 websites pertaining to politics or religion have been blocked (“Top 10 Countries That Censor The Internet”). Political activists can use the Deep Web to read up on news of their country from the perspective of others, rally for protests, and just as an outlet for the oppressed speak out anonymously and without the fear of execution.
If you know how to get inside the system, you can get access to virtually any kind of information at your fingertips. A question to ponder is how the Deep Web and Tor will change our communication structures in the future. Since any unregulated and “off the grid” system allows people to run rampant in both seedy websites and scholarly treasure troves, will more people discover and be drawn to this underground world? We already saw the direct effect of people discovering Bitcoins- its value dropped within a few days of Gizmodo and Metro covering the topic of anonymous currency. It is difficult to say how the Deep Web will develop and whether it will receive a substantial increase in traffic, but one thing is for sure- it allows for high levels of anonymity, has great potential, and must be used with caution.
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