One of the most striking features of darkness is that where it is, you cannot see anything. The research by social scientists from the universities of Virginia Tech and Skidmore (in the US state of New York) is all the more ambitious. You tried to see how bad things are in the so-called Darknet. This is the part of the Internet that is only accessible with special software and that can be visited anonymously. Surveillance and censorship by government agencies are almost impossible there, which is why the technology attracts dissidents and drug dealers alike.
With their study, the researchers want to have revealed a global imbalance: In free states, significantly more people use Tor for illegal activities – buying drugs, tinkering with malware that destroys computers, or downloading depictions of child abuse. Subjects of oppressive states did so in significantly fewer cases. The developers of the anonymous part of the Internet won’t let that sit on them.
The Tor browser in particular enables access to the Darknet. The Tor network is made up of thousands of nodes in idealist computers. Data is routed through them until it is unclear where they come from and where they are going. Tor stands for “The Onion Router” – because the browser disguises the identities of the users like in an onion under several layers of digital encryption. When intelligence agents have removed all shifts, they shouldn’t find anything and cry while doing it.
At the Tor nodes, the researchers accessed data in 2018 and 2019, from which it can be deduced which pages the browser users accessed. Basically, the study published on Monday shows that 93 percent of the recorded users of the Tor browser visit websites in the – supposedly – harmless “Clear Web” – the network that the mainstream surfs on. They remain anonymous through Tor. In the really dark corners of the Darknet it was mainly people in the West who dived. A place of horror is hidden behind the layers of the onion in the west. In non-free countries, on the other hand, significantly fewer Tor users hung around on sites that offered illegal items.
To determine the “degree of freedom” of a country, the researchers used the index of the organization Freedom House, which is largely financed by the USA. Its index evaluates electoral processes, rule of law and freedom of the press in a country, among other things. The researchers’ conclusion: the free states suffered “disproportionately much damage” from the Tor network.
So is the Darknet, which is supposed to be a haven for the oppressed on earth, just a hub for cocaine and child pornography for decadent Westerners? The makers of the Tor Browser vehemently oppose this view. In a statement on the Ars Technica website, they accuse the researchers of “demonizing” their “hidden services” as criminal. Tor’s “hidden services” are those pages that are beyond the Clear Web and whose addresses end in “.onion”.
The study has a weak point, which the researchers acknowledge and which has to do with the anonymity of the Darknet. They cannot prove that the people they cover are actually doing illegal things. You just guess. Those who visit the “.onion” pages are more likely to be looking for something illegal, they argue in the study. After all, the drug black market on the Darknet has grown strongly in recent years, and at least in a 2015 survey, surfers were primarily looking for child pornography on the hidden pages.
The Tor developers argue that the hidden services are not automatically illegal. Also Facebook, New York Times and Deutsche Welle would offer their pages in this format in order to be accessible to readers risk-free even in states that are prone to censorship and surveillance. Secure mail service providers and platforms to which whistleblowers can pass evidence of scandals can also be reached in this way. In the engine room of the Darknet, one has always felt misunderstood, and that although the Tor network is supported by the USA. Many experts consider it a successful example of democratically meaningful technology funding.
So there is trouble, but the scientists were very conciliatory in their conclusion. They want to warn of a political danger resulting from the “Darknet dilemma”: If states simply let the Darknet continue to exist, depictions of child abuse will continue to be spread there, and more hard drugs and firearms will be dealt there. Switching off the Tor network would, however, prevent dissidents and human rights activists in undemocratic regimes from obtaining information and discussing matters.
According to the logic of the scientists, users in free states now bear the costs, while those in less free systems have the political advantages. The infrastructure of Tor is mainly operated in the USA and other free states. According to the scientists, there is a risk in the relatively high level of criminal use. Because it could increase the pressure on Western governments to shut down the network – at the expense of those people who are dependent on it in more authoritarian states. Then it would get really dark in these countries.