A discussion about dark net terminology

As a social scientist, I continue to be interested in understanding the intersections between internet technologies and psychoactive drugs, especially drugs that are otherwise difficult to obtain due to prohibition. These intersections are numerous: the internet can facilitate drug trades, information exchange, and safe spaces for communication between like-minded people. While all of the above occurred prior to ubiquitous internet use, current digital technologies lubricate these existing processes making them quicker, easier and more efficient, changing the scale of what is possible.

One enduring problem I have noticed when discussing these issues is a lack of clarity about terminology. This lack of clarity can lead to serious problems in logic and argument.

An example of this problem can be found in reporting by the Australian TV program 60 minutes from 2014, as described at AllThingsVice. In this program, the terms ‘deep web’ and ‘dark web’ were conflated. This conflation led to the reporters claiming that the dark web was 90% of the total content of the web, when in fact, it is many magnitudes smaller than the surface web. This conflation suited the tone of this story as it supported the scaremongering: making the dark web threat appear very large. Nevertheless the lack of shared definitions of terms makes this space harder to understand and easier to misrepresent.

I am by no means the definitive expert on all things dark net. What follows are my thoughts on what I believe we are talking about. I include here my sense of doubt and ambiguities that I believe exist regarding terminology and definitions of internet structures that surround or are present in the dark net. I invite your comments and hopefully these may lead to a more definitive document, although I doubt you can ever get ‘the internet’ to agree entirely on anything!

If we consider ‘the web’, that is, all of the content accessible through browsers connected to the Internet, we can divide the web into two parts: (1) the surface web, (2) the deep web. All content that can be accessed through search engines is the surface web. The remaining web content is the deep web: which we can define as content inaccessible via search engines. These terms and definitions were first used by Bergman in 2001. In his calculations the deep web was many magnitudes larger than the surface web, which he represented with an iceberg image, the surface web being just the tip of the iceberg of web content available. We are nearly 15 years on from this original formulation, so I have no idea the scale of content the web now contains. A very large number I’m sure!

So, what is contained within the deep web? Some examples include: content that is locked behind pay-walled websites, content accessible through company or academic databases, any kind of database that cannot be searched directly by Google, websites that are not linked to other websites, private websites and forums, etc. An example of typical deep web content is the results of a search for accommodation using a travel website. This content can only be accessed after a text search, which is something a search engine cannot do. A vast amount of website content can, therefore, not be indexed by clicking on links, and this is the deep web.

A small part of the deep web content includes hidden internet services, usually accessible through Tor but also through alternative anonymising software like I2P. By its users, this part of the internet is called the dark net. The terminology ‘dark’ refers to the difficulty finding the content rather than its nature being dark: content in the dark web is being intentionally hidden. The term dark net and the term dark web are often used interchangeably. According to wikipedia, a darknet is a private peer-to-peer network, but it also appears to be the term most currently used by hidden internet service communities to describe their world. For example, darknetstats, r/darknetmarkets, etc.

Dark net markets are digital platforms that use anonymising software (e.g. Tor) and cryptocurrencies (e.g. Bitcoin) to facilitate trade of goods and services. These marketplaces have also been called cryptomarkets (coined by James Martin) because they would not be possible without the use of cryptography. Dark net markets or cryptomarkets are a subset of the dark net or dark web; the dark net/web is a subset of the deep web; and the deep web is a subset of the entire web. The deep web is all content that is not classified as the surface web, but it appears that the terms surface web and clear web / clear net are used interchangeably to refer to the same thing: web content accessible via search engines. Perhaps at some point the clear / dark distinction was binary, in that the dark web represented everything that the clear web was not.

An interesting point was made in conversation with Rasmus Andersen on the above distinctions. He noted that it is in fact more difficult to access paywalled content in the deep web than it is to access dark net markets, because there are many access points in the surface web that lead there, even without the need to install Tor. For example, tor2web can be used as a gateway into dark net markets without actually using Tor, although this would not be a secure option. Many of the sites that track the development of dark net markets are also hosted in the clear web: deepdotweb and r/darknetmarkets, for example. So, although content from dark net markets is not directly indexed by search engines (at least clear web search engines, cf. dark net market search engine Grams), entry points into dark net markets abound in the clear net. A simple Google search can mean you are not far away from entering a dark net market. But as I’ve outlined previously, it takes more than entering the marketplace to make a successful purchase!

Here are some helpful related links:

Hacker Lexicon: What Is the Dark Web? by Andy Greenberg

Clearing up confusion – deep web vs. dark web by Bright Planet

Thanks to those involved in prior discussions on the Cryptomarket Research e-list. The above is provisional so tell me what you think in the comments.

3 thoughts on “A discussion about dark net terminology”

  1. Well, the thing is that all the terms bouncing around, dark/deep net/web, are entirely artificial. At the end of the day there’s essentially very little difference between the segregation of sites hosted on a virtual hosting platform (often referred to as shared hosting these days so as not to conflate it with a virtual private server) and the segregation of a .onion site from a normal .com or .net on the same server. It’s just that the .onion site has a few additional points of configuration, primarily relating to the network interface(s) which are managed by the Tor software. The encrypted connection methods are also essentially the same as those used to connect to any commercial website, Tor does after all depend on OpenSSL.

    So as with any media related jargon or terminology, you can probably get away with calling it anything you like. I find I generally call hidden websites that or explicitly cite them as being Tor (.onion) sites or I2P sites or whatever else. IIRC I’ve only used those other terms either mockingly or as a short hand I’ve heard used by those I am conversing with and cannot be bothered explaining to (or have zero confidence in their ability to comprehend it).

    That said, putting the pure technicalities of networking and encryption aside, the definitions you’ve stated here are probably the best I’ve seen in any one place. Even though there could still be some elements which could lead to confusion. For example, using these definitions a corporate VPN could be described as a darknet, but I doubt the company running it would think of it that way.

  2. Hi Ben, thanks for your comment. Categorisation is always going to be incomplete and will naturally gloss over the finer details, but I’m pleased that you think this post is better than most attempts to define these terms. But it is certainly a work in progress and it will naturally evolve, I’m sure, just as the ‘dark net’ environment does too.

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