The dark web has been always thought of as a place to conduct illegal activities, such as trading illicit drugs, buying hacking products, facilitating online child abuse, and weapons trafficking. However, many studies have shown that considerable legal activities also take place on the dark web. The online anonymity offered by Tor renders it indispensable for political activists, whistleblowers, and others whom are highly concerned about their privacy while surfing the internet. A recently published paper is focused on discussing the costs of using the dark web for legal activities.
Discussions involving the usage of the dark web, similar to discussions involving encryption in general, are considerably polarized. One party believes that the technology should be more or less unbreakable to keep nefarious users away. A backdoor to the system cannot be made available only to law enforcement agencies and closed in the face of criminals and other individuals or entities. This is because establishing an entryway will render the whole system vulnerable. Actually, intentional creation of back doors can undermine privacy and increase vulnerabilities. The other party believes that allowing anonymous and encrypted technologies, such as Tor, greatly compromises law enforcement.
So, what is the cost of allowing individuals to use Tor for legal purposes?
Policy makers and legislators are concerned about whether the technology can impose more harm than good. What really matters is an overall assessment of the technology’s impact. There is no direct answer to this question, yet many studies have been trying to quantify the cost-benefit of usage of the dark web.
The painful reality is that most of the liberal countries that developed and support most of the infrastructure of the Tor network, have to deal with most of the harmful effects of the dark web, while harnessing very few of the system’s legal benefits. Using the technology in liberal democratic countries means that drug marketplaces, trolls, and child pornography websites grow, yet the benefits, including evading state surveillance and bypassing censorship, are relatively minimal. On the other hand, less problematic programs, such as proxies and VPNs, exist and offer some of Tor’s anonymity features with higher download speed along with less abuse potential, as they store users’ data and can help law enforcement agencies whenever a valid warrant is presented.
Consequently, unless users are engaging in illegal activities, having to use a powerful anonymity online tool, such as Tor, in liberal countries is not a necessity, because citizens’ rights are legally and constitutionally protected in these countries. As such, it is unlikely that Tor offers the society net benefits in liberal democratic countries. In fact, the dark web is more harmful than beneficial in these countries.
If we shift the reference frame to repressive undemocratic countries, the cost-benefit formula of Tor changes entirely. In repressive countries, journalists, dissidents, human right activists, whistleblowers, and even ordinary citizens will benefit greatly from the dark web, even if a percentage of these individuals use it for criminal purposes. The bottom line is that the dark web in countries where citizens have minimal political rights is collectively more beneficial than harmful.
The essential policy question to be derived out of this discussion is whether or not individuals in liberal democratic countries accept to bear the cost of presence of a technology such as Tor, provided that its benefits are not distributed evenly from a global perspective. Users in the Western world might conclude that the costs of existence of such a system are simply not worth it and support a state driven stamp out of the system within their countries. Such decision would have significant implications on the existence of the dark web and efficiency of the Tor network, since it operates properly in repressive countries only because the majority of its framework (computers and servers comprising the network’s relay nodes) exists on the soil of liberal democratic countries. Without the large number of volunteered computers across the globe hosting Tor’s relay nodes, the efficiency of the network would be markedly compromised and the ability of Tor to conceal the online identity of users in need in repressive countries would be considerably undermined.