©NilanjanaRoy
©NilanjanaRoy

The Dark Net: Inside The Digital Underworld

Jamie Bartlett

William Heinemann & Co, distributed by Rupa Publications,

Rs 699, 303 pages

 darknet

This March, a user with the name NSWGreat posted a thread on Reddit: [Complaint/ Warning] Evolution Admins Exit Scamming. “I hate to be the bearer of bad news,” NSWGreat, “…but the admins are preparing to exit scam with all the funds. … I am so sorry but Verto and Kimble have f***ed us over.”

And just like that, Evolution had vanished. In the roughly 18 months since the well-orchestrated Operations Onymous had taken down Silk Road, Evolution had become the top dark-net, anonymous market for drugs, stolen identities and other high-value illegal commodities.

Jamie Bartlett has little doubt that some version of Evolution or Silk Road will return, despite these hiccups. “It is not surprising that online drug markets exist,” he writes in The Dark Net, “What is surprising is that they work.” There are no regulators, buyers and sellers are anonymous, the risk of infiltration by law enforcement agencies is constant – and yet, he found, dark net markets are surprisingly reliable. Almost all of the dark net markets in illegal goods run on trust, and customer reviews, product endorsement and reliability are easily available.

“When you buy drugs offline, your choice, to some extent, is limited by geography, and by who you know,” he points out, “On Silk Road 2.0 there is too much choice.” User reviews make these sites work; vendors rely on positive reputations. Bartlett does not debate the morality of these sites, assuming that we all know about the dangers of drug use. His analysis of how dark net markets are stable, broadly reliable systems make you see that Verto and Kimble are exceptions rather than the rule.

[Another, substantially distinct, view of Dark Net markets by Henry Farrell on Aeon.]

One way to read The Dark Net is to see Bartlett’s extensive, painstaking research as an enquiry into human behaviour, rather than just another travelogue into the seamier side of the online world. He meets crypto-anarchists, Bitcoin evangelists, trolls, hackers, hardworking women who make a living off the sexcam market, people whose conditions – anorexia, suicidal ideation – drive them online in search of communities that might be both comforting and dangerously enabling, libertarians, political extremists and idealists.

[Jamie Bartlett and Carl Miller talk about conspiracy sites]

For much of the Internet-using public, accustomed to the relatively sanitized zones of Facebook and Google, the Dark Net is a scary place, little understood and seldom visited. The reputation of the Dark Net is summed up by the Assassination Market, dreamed up by the radical theorist Jim Bell in 1995. The four rules of the Assassination Market are simple: add a name to the list, add money to the pot in the person’s name, predict when the person will die. The fourth rule – making your prediction come true – is optional.

In truth, the Dark Net is as multi-faceted and complex as much of the real world itself. Dark Net sites are, at their simplest, illegal and under-the-radar sites that are not easily accessible from the surface web, but that can be found through Tor or through searches on the Deep Web. (Google indexes roughly 16% of the Internet; the Deep Web is the rest of the wide ocean of cyberspace, searchable through specific databases or concealed behind security walls.)

The Deep Web is neither dangerous nor innocuous in itself – it is just the larger, mostly unseen, part of the Internet, filled with leviathans and giant squids hidden from normal scrutiny. As public curiosity about the Deep Web and the Dark Net grows, the Deep Web is also no longer much of a secret. Dark net sites sell anything from information (hacking skills, cryptography) to the usual guns and arms, drugs, fake documents and identities, and provide an online home for offline businesses such as the trade in human organs.

[Joseph Cox in Wired on the Deep Web: “morally, it is a very colourful place”.]

Bartlett is an excellent guide to the Dark Net as it existed up to 2014. He has a well-informed, curious mind, is not squeamish and isn’t interested in sensationalism. He’s just as fascinated by the human creativity on display as by the crime and anarchy the Dark Net fosters.

For readers who remember the early days of the Internet in India, the section on doxing (revealing a user’s identity/ address to the world at large) and trolling are useful. This is a reminder that today’s trolls are just updated versions of the flamers who used to disrupt usenet groups or rampage through early role-playing games. “Trolling is a culture, it’s a way of thinking,” a troll called Zack tells Bartlett; and perhaps the best way to understand trolls is to see them as members of a tribe, bound by their need to be acknowledged.

[A 2002 FAQ on Usenet and other trolls]

In many ways, The Dark Net is a reminder of the multiplicity of views and voices out there. Far right, or extreme nationalist or racial supremacist, groups resemble each other, but they evolve in very distinct ways on the Internet. When Bartlett meets Bitcoin enthusiasts, he finds a range of opinions: some see digital crypto-currencies as the ultimate weapon of freedom, striking at the nation-state’s power over money, others see it simply as a superior payment mechanism.

Bartlett might change the way many see online porn artists, who have to be increasingly skilled at nurturing an audience in a world where homemade porn floods that market. But the most disturbing section in The Dark Net tracks anorexics, cutters, and the suicidal, with the caveat that the Internet did not create the tendency to self-harm.

As Bartlett meets consumers of child pornography or users with suicidal tendencies, he raises uncomfortable questions – does the availability of child porn or DIY suicide guides make it more likely that people will cross a certain line? In one chilling interview, a pro-anorexic woman explains, “Your friends will understand you, but they won’t help you.” As with the real world, how you use the Internet and what you pay attention to will shape your reality. What you browse every day becomes who you are.

Despite this, Bartlett retains a sense of optimism, especially about the layers of privacy that enable the freedom many experience in the Deep Web, a freedom no longer really practical for users of the surface web.

“For me,” he writes, “[the dark net] is an idea more than a particular place: an underworld set apart yet connected to the internet we inhabit, a world of complete freedom and anonymity, and where users say and do what they like, uncensored, unregulated, and outside of society’s norms. It is a world that is as shocking and disturbing as it is innovative and creative, a world that is much closer than you think.”