The dark side of the Internet

Photo: Best understood through analogy, the Deep and Surface Webs are similar to an iceberg. (Stock photo courtesy Social Wallpapering)

[I] first learned about the Deep Web in the summer of 2012, when I needed to find an anonymous browser to search for something I can no longer remember, but am sure was probably too inappropriate to default to Chrome’s incognito mode. My Google search for a new browser bounced back ‘Tor,’ and the search on Tor bounced back results on the ‘Secret Internet.’

My reaction was akin to a geek’s wet dream: I pressed the ‘download’ button and spent hours roaming parts of the Internet I never knew existed.

Thus, I was introduced to the Deep Web—a vast, dark and rather creepy part of the Internet known primarily to tech nerds, ‘90s computer hackers (a sect of which I’ve prayed to every deity to somehow morph back in time to join) and people with illicit interests. It is sort of reminiscent to how YouTube has that “weird side” with Poop videos and old men who eat banana peels.

I was home.

It came as a pleasant surprise, then, when I received an email that the Ryerson library was holding a workshop on searching the Deep Web last week. I did what any respectable fan of the Deep Web would do: skipped class and headed to the library early.

Much to my dismay, the computer lab where the workshop was to be held last Tuesday was empty, sans a few kids typing up essays and laughing open-mouthed without producing any sound while on Facebook. This bunch definitely didn’t have any interest in exploring the depths of the Internet.

I waited half an hour before retreating (read: sulking) out of the library. There is still no word as to why the event flopped or where the folks who were supposed to be running the workshop went.

It is a shame, really. The Deep Web is unlike anything most people have experienced online. The Internet we all love and surf is referred to as the Surface Web; but beneath it is a world of millions of unfrequented websites that require certain software to access—the Deep Web. Using an anonymous browser called the Tor Network, users can access websites—with URLs that contain randomly generated 16-character hashes and are suffixed with .onion—that exist outside of the censored, regulated ecosphere of the Surface Web.

Because search engines are faulty and domains don’t follow the familiar patterns we know in the Surface Web, the Deep Web is mostly navigated through a collection of well-known sites via the Hidden Wiki. These sites include anything from social networking to contacts for hitmen for hire (though, I soon learned, most of these were elaborate hoaxes) to the homepages for conspiracy theorists.

The Deep Web is best explained through analogy: if the Internet were an iceberg, the Surface Web would be the exposed tip, while the Deep Web would be the large, hidden ice-encrusted base. To put things into perspective: In 2003, the University of California Berkeley conducted a study that found there’s about 200 TB worth of data on the Surface Web. Compare that to the 100,000 TB worth of data found on the Deep Web.

And in this analogy, the Ryerson library folks are like a cruise ship, sailing in the wrong direction—away from the depths of online knowledge.

While all that may sound complicated, I lament that more laypeople—yes, including those Facebook-laughers—didn’t have the opportunity to try to grasp the concept of the Deep Web at Ryerson last week.

After all, the Deep Web has gone rather mainstream in the recent past.

For one, though its origins are rather under-reported, Bitcoin has made international headlines for months now. It was once hailed as “gold-like” and investors around the world gawked as the cryptocurrency’s value continued to climb. But Bitcoin came to be in 2009 merely as an anonymous currency for those on the Deep Web, a means of purchasing potentially illicit substances or services without the trace left from paper money.

The Silk Road, too, made news once the mainstream media realized its dangers. As an anonymous, online marketplace for drugs, its potential in the international drug trade left investigators reeling. By October 2013, it was shut down and has only recently been re-launched.

So much of our world news lies in the depths of this part of the Internet, and yet, so few people know of its existence. And what with Silk Road and Bitcoin becoming everyday, commonplace terms, it seems problematic that their origins have been left out of the picture.

In the future, I wouldn’t shock me if a major child pornography (called ‘Cheese Pizza’ by Deep Webbers) bust or the arrest of firearms traders made headlines via the Deep Web. It is an area of interest (and, frankly, pretty horrific stuff) that more Canadians—especially students—should have an eye on.

But most notably, the Deep Web is full of close, like-minded communities of intelligent people looking to share their thoughts on politics and the state of our society. There are forums like Torbook (the Deep Web’s version of Facebook) and Torchan (4chan clone) where people talk about the taboo topics. It is endlessly fascinating, particularly because everyone is anonymous and there isn’t any form of censorship, or need for it. The result is candid, bizarre and uncensored dialogue between people from who-knows-where—unlike anything on the Internet as most know it.

So, in the throes of today’s current events, society, even technology at large, it seems a pity that Ryerson can’t even hold together a workshop that is now more important than ever.

Perhaps, in the end, it is best to, like me, fall into the Deep Web on your own.