Review: The Dark Net

Posted by , 9 May 2017

The dark net isn’t what we think we know.

I raced through the first third of this book and then found that I didn’t enjoy the rest as much (but hear me out, I’ll explain why!).

The first part of the book deals with the sorts of things that are truly hidden from the ‘normal’ user of the Internet. For example, the Silk Road and other dark markets, ToR and other hidden services are the sorts of things I’m just not going to encounter and frankly have no need to go looking for. So it’s truly fascinating to read about them from someone who has taken the time to not just explore them but understand them and their impact. The same comment also goes for the chapter on Bitcoin and other digital currencies; although we’re increasingly hearing about them in the mainstream media they’re not part of everyday life. I felt like these chapters gave me an insight into those parts of the internet that have been truly hidden from me.

But the other chapters dealing with trolling, hate groups, pornography and the role of communities are all things I’ve come across either directly or through vast commentary online and in the media. Why did I need to just read more about them?

These are sorts of things that are still “dark” but not hidden. Things like:

  • trolling. Trolling is not just the nasty comments we see in social media posts and newspaper articles, but sustained and coordinated attacks on individuals which have real consequences for them,
  • hate groups and the way the Internet has given them communities to share their views as well as the tools to harass and track down their victims,
  • child pornography. Some of its hidden but the barrier between the open web and criminal activity is more porous than I realised,
  • self-generated pornography,
  • communities around self-harming, and
  • transhumans – people who adapt their bodies to technology.

One of the really important aspects of this book is how the author talks directly to those involved. He talks to trolls, members of far-right groups, even someone convic, people buying and selling drugs and transhumans.

There are some clear themes here.

Firstly, many of the people who engage in the Dark Net have some form of personal philosophy that justifies their actions. With trolls, it might be a simple desire to be satirical, to emphasise freedom of expression or expose the (to them) hypocrisy they see in others. For others, it seems to be merely an idle occupation on the basis that if people choose to share personal information than they must have accepted the response. Even when there are real world consequences, the justification is always that the victim has deserved it. Similarly, people using encryption, digital currencies and hidden markets use them to avoid government control and surveillance and to promote a society free of government interventions. Communities around self-harm provide genuine support to those struggling with harming. People who embed technologies in their bodies want to embrace the future just as much as those who oppose it want to find a more genuine (ie. technology-free) ideal of humanity.

Secondly, many of these people feel so justified by their personal philisophies that considering the impact on others is an affront or a denial of their rights to speak or act.

The third theme is there can also be an underlying political philosophy to many of the developments over the life of the web. It’s clear that developments around encryption and cryptography, the hidden web, cryptocurrencies originated from radical libertarian thought and the desire to be free of government control. These political ideas are deeply enmeshed in the tools we use even though we don’t see them or even understand how those tools in turn influence modern politics and culture.

In the end, this is what I really got from the book. The ‘dark net’ is not about the technologies that are used. It’s not about the various transactions people engage in using those technologies. It’s really a cultural expression that seeks freedoms from the constraints of the mainstream world – technology is simply the tool they have chosen. In some cases, people may express themselves in the real world and in other cases the dark net is their only form of expression. It can give people a sense of power and freedom, often magnified beyond that which people could ever achieve in their real lives. And because these are real people, the dark net is not something that’s buried deep and away from societies – the people who use it are always closer to us than we may think.

Dark net is a mirror of society. Distorted, magnified and mutated but still recognisably us.


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