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Research: The anonymity dilemma of the darknet – Freedom of speech vs governmental control

The darknet is not merely a place for criminal behavior; it facilitates secure, anonymous online communication between individuals adopting marginalized positions such as whistleblowers, human right activists, and dissidents.

The darknet has been associated with a criminal, mystical, and threatening aura. This has been catalyzed by reports on darknet marketplaces that facilitate the trading of illicit drugs and weapons. Discussions involving the darknet surfaced on the media when news began to circulate that the Munich shooter had purchased his weapon via a darknet marketplace. Moreover, mainstream media coverage of darknet drug marketplaces, namely Silk Road and the Alpha Bay (both already taken down by law enforcement agencies), supported the theory that the darknet is essentially a place of criminal activities that has to be closely monitored and regulated.

A recently published paper attempted to demystify the truth about the darknet. It presented a discussion regarding the debate associated with the darknet as an anonymous network for criminal activities, as well as freedom of expression. The paper introduced some important definitions and data regarding the deep web and the darknet. Let’s take a look at some of the valuable information presented in this article.

The surface web, deep web, and darknet:

The internet is comprised of the surface web and the deep web. Content which can be indexed by traditional search engines is described as the surface web; the deep web includes online content that cannot be indexed by these search engines.

The darknet represents a small part of the deep web. In brief, the darknet is a part of the internet where users can communicate almost entirely anonymously. The darknet represents parts of the deep web that include hidden internet services, i.e. hidden websites that can only be browsed via a special browser such as Tor (The Onion Router), Freenet, or I2P (Invisible Internet Project). The Tor network represents a network of servers, or nodes, via which connection requests initiated by users are encrypted and routed over at least three randomly selected nodes so that communication taking place across the Tor network is almost impossible to trace. The identities and geographical locations of the estimated 2 million individuals using Tor worldwide are concealed, as illustrated via the below chart.

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Figure (1): Estimated number of Tor users between 2012 and 2017. The great rise witnessed in 2013 was associated with a botnet.

Types of content on the darknet:

Opposite to the public’s belief, two research studies prove that neither drugs nor weapons represent the most discussed topics on the darknet. A British research paper examining 13,600 web pages on the Tor network proved that 52% of the content on the Tor network is considered legal under UK or US law. Of all examined Tor hidden services, 29% represented file sharing services, 28% consisted of leaked information, and 12% were related to financial fraud. No more than 4% of the content examined was related to drug trading, and only 0.3% could be linked to weapons.

Similar results were obtained by another group of academics from King’s College, who analyzed 2,723 hidden services on the Tor network. Around 43% of the content hosted on these websites was classified as legitimate. Of the remainder of identified illegal content, 15% was related to illicit drugs, 12% to finance, 1.5% to weapons, and 7% to other forms of illegal content.

Unfortunately, the results obtained from the two studies cannot be compared directly, as the former focused on all analyzed Tor hidden services (both legal and illegal services), while the latter only analyzed the content that can be classified as illegal. Apart from their small sample sizes, both research studies present the relationship between legal and illegal content on the darknet and show that drugs and weapons are of secondary importance.

Power and freedom of speech on the darknet:

In addition to an anonymous bartering of illegal products and services, the darknet’s hidden services also offer communication means that promote freedom of expression. The unmatched value of the darknet is that it offers users a high level of security and privacy. This is of great significance following the Snowden revelations regarding cross-border mass surveillance practices and violations of data protection. The darknet may also be utilized to bypass state censorship imposed by repressive governments. On the other hand, the Tor network may be utilized by terrorists for anonymous communication.

The darknet is utilized by human rights activists, whistleblowers, journalists, and dissidents to highlight corruption, oppression, and other forms of inappropriate governmental behavior. For instance, during the Arab Spring, activists utilized the Tor network to communicate and draw attention to state persecution in an anonymous manner.

The darknet can be visualized as a virtual environment that has far bypassed total state and private censorship. By promoting anonymity, it offers the technological tools needed for preserving both civil liberties as well as the criminal behaviors that take place against the tide of the society’s moral and legal norms. Over the darknet, power, visualized here as surveillance practices, algorithmic regulation, traceability, and the limitation of the system’s architecture go hand in hand with everyone’s right to digital freedom, which represents a fundamental right and an essential component of democracy. The dilemma established by this coexistence is that a stronger surveillance power will automatically lead to a decline in freedom of expression and vice versa.

The balance between freedom of expression and governmental control:

More monitoring of criminal activities on the darknet, and an associated rise in subjective security, can lead to less digital freedom and privacy. This is reflected, for example, by the increased limitations on freedom of expression. As can be shown on the below figure, topics such as criticism of state authorities, oppression, corruption, war conflicts, terrorism, and political opposition, are censored in 52 countries all over the world.

Darknet dilemma 2.PNG

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Figure (2): Censored internet topics in 52 world states

This may be explained by the fact that various values and norms do not represent fixed social facts, but concepts that are pillared within a social context that vary according to place, time, and jurisdiction of a state.

The example of the darknet drug marketplaces denotes that this good-evil debate cannot be illustrated in such case. Even though legal and illegal drugs are both widely available on anonymous online marketplaces, they offer users the chance to predict in advance the qualities of the drugs. Moreover, users report less incidence of violence than when purchasing from friends, relatives, or drug dealers on the street. As such, even if they do not do so in a legal manner, darknet drug marketplaces can greatly reduce the risks and health hazards of drug abuse. This complexity requires special consideration when discussions regarding bans on darknet’s hidden services rise on the surface of mainstream media. The question is thus less related to darknet technologies or to the technical implementation possibilities and has more to do with what standards and values we choose to put into action when using them, in addition to how and for which specific purposes.

Final thoughts:

The darknet represents a question that involves negotiation of how much freedom of speech we are ready to give up in exchange for more subjective online security. Different individuals, groups, and institutions analyze these questions differently according to their special interests. Nevertheless, it is exactly here where the political challenge exists: this challenge involves ensuring that different interest groups and institutions can take part in the societal debate, and thus participate in formulating the decision regarding where democratic societies are heading to.

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