The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld

DarkNet

The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld inspires disgust, then curiosity and, finally, reassurance. Long story short: the smartest of people can be terribly savvy, terribly inventive, and just plain terrible.

What is the “dark net”? Most of us, in our day-to-day lives, utilize only the surface of the World Wide Web: email, e-commerce, news, and maybe an occasional dip into YouPorn. But thanks to Tor Hidden Services, a browser that allows secure and untraceable Internet usage, there are countless websites and offerings that exist anonymously and even illegally. Dark Net author Jamie Bartlett examines the most common of these havens — from online drug markets to “trolling” congregations — and he does it with considerable skill.

DarkNetSF

Ross Ulbricht, founder of Silk Road.

Bartlett’s a documentarian with no axe to grind. As director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at the Manhattan think tank Demos, he has a spectacular amount of research at his fingertips, and he uses it. His neutral stance serves him well, allowing him to pass discreetly though each chapter into a new virtual underworld. He chats with white supremacists who have turned Facebook into their meeting place and breeding ground. He interviews a man convicted of possessing child pornography and explores websites dedicated to helping people commit suicide. He even orders marijuana from the black market platform Silk Road and pays in the decentralized digital currency known as Bitcoin. His bravest endeavor might be venturing into a “rate-me” site where users post pictures of their poo for others to appraise.

Bartlett is particularly adept at unraveling online drug marketplaces. He explores the myriad and ever-evolving security methods employed by websites like Silk Road — methods directed just as much toward ensuring that buyers don’t get ripped off by dealers as they are toward evading the law. Along with a new, ultra-safe electronic payment method called “multi-signature escrow,” these sites promote consumer protection in the same way that “surface net” companies do: user reviews, with add-on improvements being constantly developed. In the same way that peer-to-peer file sharing “torrent” sites can search for the latest episode of The Good Wife and direct you to a download source, the dark net site Grams searches online markets for your favorite brand of pills or fair-trade cocaine, sold by dealers with fair trade-friendly sales pitches: “We never buy coke from cartels! We never buy coke from police! We help farmers from Peru, Bolivia and some chemistry students in Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina.”

It’s easy to today believe that privacy is over, and that nothing can be kept from the all-seeing eye of Big Brother. Yet several of Bartlett’s interviewees are successfully developing fully anonymous tools to communicate and conduct transactions. These products, like Ethereum, a project that encrypts peer-to-peer networks and won the 2014 World Technology award for IT software, are aimed not at drug dealers or pornographers but at mass-market users who, like many of us, are uncomfortable with the amount of our personal information available to strangers, be they common hackers or our own governments.

It is Bartlett’s plentiful and fascinating interviews with the denizens of the dark net that make his book so compelling. A scene in which Bartlett sits in a twenty-something’s bedroom, just off camera, while three girls perform sex acts for an online audience is particularly entertaining, and puts human faces on a mass of anonymous proprietors conducting dirty business under handles like “Cappy Hamper” and “Weev.” Even the white supremacist “Paul,” who has thousands of social media followers clamoring for his views on “White Pride, ” proves shockingly charming and polite in person.

We may not approve of what people are doing with the freedom and anonymity granted by the Internet, but we can be grateful that it exists. Bartlett is careful to emphasis the dark side of the dark net: easier access to dangerous drugs, the privacy-invading “doxxing” and harassment of women who post nude pictures, an enormously increased market for child pornography, the planning of terrorist acts. The case of “Michael,” a fifty-something married father who was convicted for possessing almost 3,000 indecent images of children on his computer, suggests that increased exposure to the horrific inures us to the horror, and posits very plausibly that if it had not been so easy for Michael to click each passing pop-up, he might never even have discovered a taste for underage porn.

Bartlett only loses focus in his conclusion, which ventures off into the techno-wilderness to discuss two opposing groups: “transhumanists,” who aim to use technology to overcome the limits of biology and even transcend death, and “anarcho-primitivists,” who want to return humanity to the hunter-gatherer stage of existence. Neither of these groups looks likely to make it off the lunatic fringe any time soon, but the bulk of The Dark Net deals with existing (if intangible) tools that are changing our daily lives.

If you’ve ever been disturbed by, say, Facebook ads that advertise hotels in London just after you’ve been searching for flights, this book will give you comparative hope. Consider the sheer ingenuity on display. An illegal website is shut down by the government? Up it pops under a new URL just days later. The best illustration of the dark net’s brand of shadow comes in that scene where Bartlett watches the live sex show. A cat belonging to one of the women wanders in and out of the room: Bartlett later discovers that there’s a popular blog dedicated entirely to documenting “Indifferent Cats in Amateur Porn.” Quite worrying, a bit disgusting, highly voyeuristic, and occasionally very funny: this is the nature of both the dark net and The Dark Net.