Lying beneath the billions of Google-indexed websites on the internet is a hidden web, thousands of times larger than the indexed, or ‘surface’, internet.
The vast majority of this hidden, or ‘deep’, web is made up of inaccessible areas such as libraries, archives, corporate intranets and Facebook posts.
There are however, a number of web pages that have been deliberately hidden that include illegal, or morally questionable, material- this area is known as the ‘Dark Web’.
Only a web user who makes themselves ‘anonymous’ online can gain access to the deep web. Using ‘anonymity network’ software, a user’s IP address can be hidden by routing the user to the web page via random servers around the world and creating a temporary IP address instead, essentially anonymising their computer.
This mechanism provides multiple layers of encryption and has therefore become known as ‘onion routing’. Onion routing was originally developed by the United States military to enable untraceable communication between the armed forces. Through software applications such as Tor, this is now accessible to individual internet users. Onion routing means that new pages can be added without detection and pages can be hosted and visited anonymously. The result is that it is often used by political activists in repressive regimes to disseminate messages. For this reason, the deep web was used extensively during the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings.
However, there is an attraction to the deep web for the more nefarious internet user. This anonymous space on the internet has created a marketplace for providers of goods and services seeking to avoid the attention of the authorities- the so-called ‘Dark Web’. This includes criminal activity such as the distribution of child pornography, but also includes activity which is less obviously illegal. For example, there are websites specialising in the sale of research-level pharmaceuticals and others in the sale of significantly discounted (and presumably counterfeit) electronics. It is websites such as these that pose the greatest threat to legitimate business.