Welcome to What The Tech?!, Refinery29's weekly column explaining the basics behind a buzzword or concept you've heard tossed around in conversation (but maybe don't actually understand). It sounds like the B-grade horror sequel to the The Social Network. The "dark web." But it's a very real thing, and a very real place. We spoke to Grayson Milbourne, the security intelligence director at software security company Webroot, for some background on what the dark web is, and some myths surrounding it. The dark web is the name for a private network that operates within the internet. Once you connect, you gain access to a variety of content and sites that you wouldn’t otherwise have access to through traditional search means, such as Google or Bing. It’s kind of like the semi-secret member’s only club in the basement of a bigger club. There’s actually not just one dark web — there are a number of different ones, some are free, and others require pay to access. The most well-known dark web network is Tor. Unlike traditional internet, where you’re connected through your home router, networks like Tor offer a higher degree of anonymity because they employ a proxy relay network. Tens to hundreds of thousands of users contribute their internet connection to the project. When you search for something (for example), your search is rerouted through all those others users, instead of just straight from your computer via your router. This makes it difficult for authorities or your internet service provider to determine who originated the search. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this degree of anonymity is what makes dark web networks such as Tor the ideal place for illegal content such as child pornography, narcotics sales, or anything else you could imagine on a black market. (And this, in fact, is what the dark web is best known for.) Are there legitimate reasons for hanging out on the dark web? “Tor was not built by cybercriminals to be used by peddlers of child porn,” Milbourne explains. “It was designed because the infrastructure of the internet was built such that it was very traceable — you could understand who was connected to who. In the U.S., this is not a big deal, what you search for isn’t scrutinized. But in other countries, what you search for has an impact. The dark web gives people who want access to the world wide web access without monitoring by parties that shouldn’t.”
Just last week, Facebook revealed that over one million of its users access the social network through Tor, many of them likely from oppressed regions such as Iran. Anyone can download and access Tor if they want to, through the Tor Project website. Otherwise, don't worry — you're never going to accidentally stumble into this corner of the internet. Unless you're looking for some serious internet privacy, have some nefarious dealings to do, or just have a burning sense of curiosity.