In a remote and dangerous region of the Internet dwells another lesser-known net, a lawless digital no-man's-land with a shady reputation and an ominous name: The Darknet.
Here on the virtually anything-goes Darknet, with its guaranteed anonymity, criminals and scammers of one stripe or another, anti-government rebels, revolutionaries, terrorists and other varieties of outlaw can hawk their goods and services, communicate with visitors and customers to their sites and with each other, and operate anonymously and thus presumably with impunity.
But the Darknet, paradoxically, is also like a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with its share of good qualities as well, including its use by law enforcement agencies to conceal their own legal activities and as a medium for writing and reading what might otherwise be censored in authoritarian states. So the Darknet is not entirely evil and beyond redemption.
But first, let's take a look at the darkest side of the Darknet.
Major crimes committed through the assistance of the Darknet include the sales of guns of every variety and caliber, no license required, no questions asked. Buyers favor assault weapons such as the AK-47 assault rifle, but new and stolen handguns also sell briskly.
A notorious Darknet site called Silk Road was alleged to be a virtual supermarket of narcotics, where traffickers and users could buy their drugs of choice in small amounts or wholesale lots. The FBI took down the site, but soon afterward a site called Silk Road 2.0 appeared and reportedly resumed business as usual.
Counterfeit U.S. currency is also sold on the Darknet – especially 20 and 100 dollar bills, peddled at prices discounted from their face value.
Also much in demand from Darknet entrepreneurs are phony passports, birth certificates, forged or bogus documents and stolen credit cards.
Prostitutes advertise openly on the Darknet, usually with photographs, although some of the photos may not be pictures of the person advertising. But to whom can a swindled customer complain?
Another category of criminal enterprise found on the Darknet is the professional assassin. Murder-for-hire services are boldly advertised, and although there are no reliable figures on the number of Darknet-related contract killings, there are reputedly no shortage of customers.
Some self-proclaimed assassins of the Darknet you might ironically say are unethical because they take a customer's money and never deliver the promised fatal result.
Other Darknet "hit men" are police conducting sting operations, many of which have been successful in preventing homicides and apprehending potential murderers.
Asian customers of the Darknet have a predilection for animal parts of certain endangered species, which are readily available for a price. Annual sales in this illegal market have been estimated at $20 billion.
Powdered rhinoceros horn is a favorite of Chinese and Vietnamese buyers, although it is popular in many other countries as well. Rhino horn is mistakenly reputed to have mystical, psychoactive and various medicinal properties. A single rhino horn can sell for as much as $500,000 and a kilo of the horn in powdered form sells for as much as $90,000.
Other animal parts offered for sale include elephant tusks, which are pure ivory and sell for high prices on the black market. Tiger parts reportedly also sell well, as do exotic animals, protected by law.
Criminal operators on the Darknet protect their identity through encryption – every Darknet dweller, as mentioned, is masked in anonymity and nobody knows anybody, unless a name is deliberately revealed. Outsiders or third parties cannot access communications between two parties. Sellers and buyers of Darknet contraband and illegal services are therefore impossible to trace.
Additional secrecy is provided by hidden servers and IPs and by URLs whose sites often disappear randomly and unpredictably.
With all these security measures it's easy to see how criminal activity on the Darknet is rampant and for the most part unpunished.
But the same elements that protect felonious activities on the Darknet can also be used for positive purposes.
Political dissidents, for example, who are denied freedom of speech by their dictatorial governments may publish anti-government editorials or messages on rogue sites and leave nary a trace of their identities. There is no government-imposed censorship on the Darknet and so anyone can say anything without fear of retribution.
Also cloaked anonymously in the Darknet's shadows are whistleblowers who can tell news sources their tales of public or private sector misconduct, mismanagement, malfeasance or worse and be assured that they won’t be tagged as the snitch. Information leakers, likewise, can disclose proprietary or classified information and their identities would never be known.
Darknet "hacktivist" vigilantes also roam the territory in pursuit of villains and villainous sites. Recently a hacktivist operation took down a child porn site – frontier justice cyber-style, you might say. The destructive hacking of the site was perhaps unethical and maybe illegal, because there was no trial by jury.
It's not difficult to get to the Darknet. Google “TOR Project” and the following link will appear: https://www.torproject.org/index.html.en.
The TOR Project site – TOR is short for The Onion Router – is home to a network that allows anonymous browsing of both the mainstream Internet and Darknet. TOR also hosts a directory of Darknet sites, most of which have the suffix .onion as the address extension.
Be forewarned, however, visiting the Darknet is definitely hazardous and all due security precautions should be taken. Don't share personal information and don't use passwords you use on the Internet. It's also not wise to click on links and, of course, don't give out credit card or Social Security numbers.
The U.S. government just recently announced that it would give up oversight of the Internet in 2015.
But after the administration was urged not to give up Internet control by Bill Clinton, by 35 Republican senators who sent a letter to that effect to the President, and as a result of Congressional hearings, the administration changed its mind and will retain oversight of the net.
The U.S. currently controls of The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, also known as Icann, which assigns domain names and web addresses and keeps Net operations running smoothly, openly and free of domestic and foreign political pressure.
If the planned relinquishment of Internet oversight were implemented, the U.S. would hand over control to a group of global companies, nonprofits and academics. Opponents of the move predicted that repressive governments such as Russia, China and North Korea – there are many others as well – would increase their authoritarian control of the Internet and step up their already strict censorship.
Without U.S. control, countries with strong restrictions on the Internet would not permit Darknet access. But where the Internet would be open and free of restraints, the Darknet – if it continued to exist – would likely flourish. Why? Because crime is a market-driven enterprise and people will want to speak, write and read freely, without censorship of any kind. This is the great paradox of the Darknet.