A web of secrets and lies is likely the world you're signing up for when you take the relatively simple steps to entering the murky encrypted underbelly of the internet. While most users are blissfully unaware of the existence of the dark web, use of the Tor anonymity network that allows access to the dark web has grown dramatically over the last few years.
What was first born as a safe haven for activists to share content without the fear of prying eyes has transformed into a cyber-underworld that houses drug markets, child sexual abuse networks, illegal pornography and professional hit men – alongside vast communities of libertarian warriors who seek internet freedom and anonymity at any cost.
But is using the dark web legal?
First, let's define the dark web. The internet can be divided into 3 sections:
The surface web, where you find all the websites you're familiar with like Google, Facebook or Twitter,
The deep web , which is a blanket term for any unindexed website, such as a private or password protected site or a page hidden deep within the realms of an indexed website,
The dark web . This is the good stuff. The dark web isn't really a section if its own; it's a subsection of the deep web, made up of certain deep websites that can only be accessed with a hidden IP address using a tool like the infamous Tor.
Whether or not it's legal is a bit of a grey area. Technically, the answer is yes – as of the time of writing, there is no law in any country that bans the use of Tor or IP-obscuring for its citizens. But using the dark web is legal in the same way that walking down a dodgy alleyway packed with traphouses and drug dealers is legal – the act itself is not illegal, but it has the potential to be a gateway into illicit activity. Plus don't forget the risk of being in the wrong place at the wrong time – a big one on the dark web. Ultimately you have to consider that a lot of what is on show is far from legal – and is definitely not for the faint of heart.
And this state of affairs might change in the future. States like China, who banned the use of commercial VPNs not too long ago, has already started working on finding ways to block Tor. France has considered finding ways to ban Tor and make the dark web illegal. And it's not hard to see why – there has been no shortage of malicious Tor use over the course of the last few years. Over the years, law enforcement agencies have discovered and taken down sites that trade in child abuse imagery and others that offer illegal hacking services on the dark web. Terrorists, kidnappers – if it exists and it's illegal, you can almost certainly find it on the dark web. Estimates from a 2015 survey state that approximately 40% of all of the content on the dark web is illegal in some way, shape or form.
But what about the 60%?
Proponents of the dark web and of the Tor project, in general, have argued that the free sharing of information that's restricted to the most vulnerable – such as those trapped in repressive regimes – is an important cause for us to protect the dark web. It's simply allowing access to the open web in a protected and private manner, which is difficult to argue against. For those trapped in nations where internet access is curtailed, Tor can be a lifeline. The dark web harbours communication and publishing networks for whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, in-depth guides to surviving doomsday scenarios or disasters in nearly every country and even book clubs. Just like the surface web, there's the good and the bad on show wherever you look.
For those trapped in nations where internet access is curtailed, Tor can be a lifeline.
There is no doubt that the dark web has done plenty of good for democracy too – In 2005, for instance, a guide to using Tor that was translated into Arabic and distributed in Mauritania was credited with forcing the government to abandon its web filtering programme altogether. Nasser Weddady, who translated the guide, told the MIT Technology Review that it didn't even matter if the officials didn't know what Tor or the darknet was: "They noticed that our communications were not disrupted, so the filtering was useless."
Using a Tor browser or an IP-hiding tool does not mean that you are safe and anonymous.
Elsewhere, Tor is being embraced by even those who you'd least expect – the US Government helps fund the project, paying $1.2 million towards it in 2015. However, they continue to fund research into cracking Tor encryption – the Department of Defence have bankrolled an academic study into weaknesses in the network since 2014. Ultimately, Tor and the existence of the dark web continues to unsettle both ordinary citizens and governments and continues to be a double-edged sword which everyone is still struggling to entirely grasp.
So yes, it's not illegal. But it's also imperative that you remember that using a Tor browser or an IP-hiding tool does not mean that you are safe and anonymous. Numerous methods have been shown to de-anonymize Tor. Governments are working hard and spending millions of dollars on drawing this curtain over the criminal cyber-realm. Do not assume you are safe. Proceed at your own risk.
What we can establish is that anything goes on the dark web. And while it might not be illegal, you might not end up liking what you see.