Most people regard the Darknet as a hotbed of criminality and shady practices. But what actually is the Darknet? First of all, it’s not synonymous with the deep web, which holds the private data of network users in private messaging systems, password-protected websites or secure intermediation platforms. In fact, it’s only a small part of this, which some people have put at just10-15% of the 90% of data accounted for by the deep web. The Darknet prefers anonymity to simple secrecy. While its contents are also not indexed by standard search engines it is still essentially different: the basic difference between the two is basically to be found in their access methods. Deep web content is not indexed by standard search engines because it is protected by passwords, protected routes or non-shared spaces. Darknet content on the other hand is not indexed because it requires special software such as The Onion Router (TOR) to access it. While the deep web is the private section of the public Internet, the Darknet is a secret alternative that people sometimes call an ‘evil mirror’. In fact, most of the websites on the Darknet are sites that mirror sites on the visible web but where certain individuals have full control of the content. It is this freedom – for better or for worse – that we are examining here.




Darknet, the myth and the reality

The Darknet is basically an informal private and anonymous peer-to-peer virtual network which operates beyond the bounds of any control or surveillance. This kind of network can be created by anyone and everyone for anyone and everyone. As such, the Darknet is therefore neither angel nor demon. It’s all a question of how you use it. Based on mutual trust, users create new links for private sharing in a free, autonomous manner. These are moreover anonymous links, as they use software to encrypt the personal identification data – the IP address – needed for access. Which means that, in theory at least, activities carried out via this type of network cannot be traced, monitored or controlled. In reality, however, things are a bit different. We now know that national intelligence services have managed to identify a large number of Darknet users. In fact, ‘secret service’ departments are among the most assiduous users of the Darknet. Let us not fool ourselves about this: governments have inveigled themselves into the Darknet, for a number of reasons.


Darknet et le réseaux

Not the least reason is that the Darknet can be used to run illicit businesses such as prostitution, and to engage in engage in illegal activities, including people-trafficking and child pornography. However it can be used for perfectly lawful activities so it is not fair to make the Darknet the scapegoat for all the ills of the Internet. Although it is frequently vilified in the media, the Darknet is in fact proof that the Internet, as a global network, is able to resist political control or special interest domination and that it is more suited to individuals than institutions. French journalist and activist Jeremie Zimmermann, who is spokesman for the citizen advocacy group Quadrature du Net (‘Squaring the Net’) argues that the Darknet is a means of escaping the clutches of Big Brother and Big Data, of evading the sphere of control and dominant interests so as to be able to act in total freedom, with all that this implies. He regards the Darknet as a way of resisting the spread of mass surveillance on the Internet, countering the new online surveillance society and enabling people to protect their own privacy. We should not forget, after all, that secrecy, anonymity and autonomy, three characteristics of the Darknet, are also the essential components of privacy and the basis of individual freedom.

Jamie Bartlett: Comment le mystérieux darknet se généralise
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A libertarian alternative to an Internet that curtails freedom

Seen like this, what is concealed behind the Darknet is actually the Internet itself, in its free, untrammelled form. Because the Internet seems to have been diverted from its initial goal as envisaged by its creator Tim Berners-Lee. In an open letter in March this year to the World Wide Web Foundation, which he founded, Sir Tim declared: “I imagined the web as an open platform that would allow everyone, everywhere to share information, access opportunities and collaborate across geographic and cultural boundaries. In many ways, the web has lived up to this vision, though it has been a recurring battle to keep it open.” Today, the open nature of the platform is being called into question. In fact the principle of ‘Net neutrality’ is constantly being challenged as Web giants build monopolies which, far from emancipating Internet users, tend to take them hostage. The Berners-Lee letter goes on: “We’ve lost control of our personal data. The current business model for many websites offers free content in exchange for personal data. […]. This widespread data collection by companies also has other impacts. Through collaboration with – or coercion of – companies, governments are also increasingly watching our every move online, and passing extreme laws that trample on our rights to privacy.” It is certainly true that the Big Data economy raises a whole range of economic, political and ethical issues, especially as regards safeguarding individual freedoms, protecting peoples’ privacy and the right to monetise one’s own data. Moreover, some intermediation sites base the content they provide on the user’s browsing data they have harvested. This has led to the creation of an entire system of skewed, or even false, information, assembled through the use of predictive algorithms based on what users have previously clicked on. This circular process is a boon for online advertising, whether commercial or political, but it tends to severely restrict the field of expression on the Internet. At the end of the day, this same system is having the effect of gagging users’ freedom of expression.


Banksy CCTV

All this is leading some people to conclude that as regards the Web, “something’s broken here,” as Berners-Lee put it. Sir Tim chose his words carefully, implying that something which is broken can still be fixed. Accordingly, a few months ago, he launched Solid (abbreviated from ‘social linked data’), a new standard drawn up in collaboration with MIT to enable separation of Internet user data stored in applications from the servers that use it and thus allow people to take back control of their personal data. Designed as a storage platform for personal data, Solid is also intended to make Internet users realise that their personal data belongs to them, make them aware of what is happening to their browsing data, of how it is being bought and sold, and that they have the right to give or withhold their consent for such activity. The data storage platform would therefore be secure, and the user would have to give his/her explicit agreement before any server could get hold of it. “Instead of having to centralise everything with an algorithm in order to be able to use a service, we’re going to create applications on the platforms that use the data hosted in Solid. That will mean, for instance, that you can switch from one social network to another without losing all your data, because it will follow you,” explains Berners-Lee.

A loose area for experimentation suited to innovation

It is still not going to be easy to get this sort of project up and running, because it will require the cooperation of the Internet giants against whose interests the initiative is partly aimed. However, the process that is now underway is at the very least highlighting some of the dubious things that are happening in the march towards Web 3.0. So what alternatives are there? How about the Darknet? There is no doubt that the Darknet has its creative, productive and free-of-restrictions side. At a time when the Internet seems to be constantly shaken by cyber-attacks – the Wannacry ransomware attack being a telling recent example – the Darknet stands for greater security and resilience. This at least is the view of Manlio de Dominico and Alex Arenas, researchers at the University of Rovira in Spain. They argue that the intrinsic properties of the Darknet make it a model for securing the entire cyberspace sphere: dark networks hold the promise of both extremely high browsing security and content security. They are more secure than the deep web, given that companies are gradually managing to penetrate these sites in order to exploit the data cached there. With this in mind, the Darknet would appear to be an ideal channel for innovation. With its protected, anonymous spaces, which should enable all kinds of experiments and explorations, it could well become the new major innovation laboratory.

In the early 20th century, Joseph Schumpeter argued that what most characterised entrepreneurial innovation was economic freedom and risk-taking. More recently, in an article entitled Power/Freedom on the Dark Web: A digital ethnography of the Dark Web Social Network, Robert Gehl points to the total freedom which the Darknet affords. He writes that, as far as the Darknet is concerned, “(…) we can speak about ‘infrastructural-freedom’: the mix of the infrastructure of existing (…) hidden services as well as open-source social media software packages to allow for a complex form of dark web communication and social expression that cannot exist on the ‘clear web’. Moreover, this form of infrastructure-freedom is available to all who learn how to navigate it; it is a freedom that comes from the technical skill needed to find the Dark Web network.” We can also, he underlines, “speak of anonymity-freedom: the use of anonymous communication to explore ideas that are marginalized in more mainstream contexts.” By promoting freedoms, the Darknet thus essentially creates the conditions for individual emancipation, which, according to Schumpeter’s arguments, is propitious for creativity and entrepreneurship. Gehl sees in the Darknet “an experiment with power and freedom.” He further points out that the Darknet “shapes internal discourses in order to develop itself as a safe and moderated environment for the productive exchange of information. This is not a free-for-all, but neither is it a space where everything is controlled and thus happy (as Facebook seemingly wants to be).” Gehl concludes his discussion of power and freedom on the Web by underlining: “The point is that power and freedom always operate on one another.” So, astonishing as it might seem, the Darknet may turn out to be a fantastic opportunity for innovation.

By Théo Roux