The dark web is not just for paedophiles, drug dealers and terrorists

It is this perception that is driving the misguided policy shift signalled in the last 48 hours

On Wednesday the Prime Minister announced that a new police and intelligence unit formed by GCHQ and the National Crime Agency would be set up to police the Dark Net. It is needed, according to the Prime Minister, because the Dark Net is full of “sickening” images that are shared by paedophiles. To quote from his speech: “The dark net is the next side of the problem, where paedophiles and perverts are sharing images, not using the normal parts of the internet that we all use.” This is clearly a tightly co-ordinated government policy move designed to tie in with the WeProtect Summit, which saw delegates from law enforcement and technology companies from more than fifty countries descend on Whitehall. The question, though, is this a policy development we demand or even need?

The dark net is an area often misunderstood by government and by the public at large. Headlines tend to be lurid “Unravelling the Dark Web: Forget South American cartels and Russian arms dealers: the black market has moved online” or “The disturbing world of the Deep Web, where contract killers and drug dealers ply their trade on the internet.” In truth the reality of the dark net is rather more prosaic.

There is, as with all areas of life, a criminal element within the dark web. Probably though no more than there is in the surface web. Yes you can find sites offering drugs or images of child abuse but you can also find these things on the surface web. The dark web, which is accessed though anonymisation software such as Tor, also offers essential privacy and anonymity to persons at risk and to ordinary people like you and me.

Reporters Without Borders recommend the use of Tor as part of its “survival kit” for bloggers, journalists and activists in countries where they may be at risk from state censorship or even arrest. The International Broadcasting Bureau (who broadcast Voice of America and Radio Free Asia) is a major Tor sponsor and recommends its use by persons in repressive regimes to allow them access to global media. Tor is also recommended by Human Rights Watch and by Global Voices.

It is not only human rights organisations and media groups who recommend its use; IT professionals and business executives also use Tor to, among other things, test firewalls, provide emergency internet access during DNS failures and provide confidentiality.

The clearest picture of the value of the anonymised deep web, or dark web if you must, is to be found in the Tor Project’s financial reports. Here we see that the project received over $1.8m from the US Government in 2013, equating to over 50 per cent of total income. The grants come from a number of resources including over $555,000 from Internetwork News, a non-profit democracy and human rights group funded by the US State Department and over $830,000 from SRI international, which is funded by the US Department of Defense.

If you think it seems quite unlikely that the US Government would be funding a service which supports paedophiles, drug dealers and terrorists, that’s because - as I hope you’re beginning to see - that’s not what the dark net is.

Reporting that part of the dark net without context is like reporting only the criminal activity that happens in a town or city without also reporting on the vibrant community, culture and commerce that thrives there. As with all communities there is a criminal element, but the dark net community is much more.

The problem is unlike a real world town or city most people either can’t or don't want to visit the dark net so their perception is driven by one-sided reporting. We imagine the worst and fail to see the best. It is this perception that is driving the policy shift signalled in the last 48 hours. The Prime Minister and Home Secretary are signalling an attack on the soft underbelly of the dark net. No one is going to stand up and defend the actions of paedophiles, so announcing a policy designed to attack paedophiles and to remove child abuse images is going to get little to no negative reaction.

However two things must be borne in mind. The first is that in 2004 BT introduced its Anti-Child Abuse Initiative, colloquially known as Cleanfeed, to block access to child abuse images held on surface web servers overseas. This was met with almost universal acclaim but in 2008 this system prevented UK Wikipedia users from editing pages on the site for nearly four days. Although arguably a correct application of the principles the system was designed for, it had clearly over-regulated. Moreover the changes in the application of Cleanfeed from 2011 onwards, in particular its use to block file sharing websites, is a clear development of a technology designed for a laudable purpose; to police paedophiles, to another less clear-cut application the policing of file sharing.

The second is the particular announcement of the Prime Minister that GCHQ will form part of the new deep web policing unit. Post the Edward Snowden revelations the use of anonymisation tools such as Tor rose substantially with some reports suggesting they have increased by 100 per cent or more.  Documents released by Snowden and reported in the Guardian suggested that the NSA were targeting Tor before this.

A cynical observer may suggest that a non-controversial, even welcome, plan to track paedophiles in the dark web may provide GCHQ with the Trojan horse they need to infiltrate and eventually strip away the anonymity that Tor offers to journalists, bloggers, activists and privacy advocates. If this happens the dark web may no longer be dark but it may also no longer be safe.

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