In free states, the darknet is used more often for illegal activities than in non-free ones, researchers want to have found.
Researchers want to have found out: In the free world, people are more likely to use the Darknet to access drugs and child pornography than in oppressive regimes. The creators of the anonymous Internet do not let that sit on them.
One of the most striking features of darkness is that you don't see anything where it reigns. This makes the research of social scientists from the universities of Virginia Tech and Skidmore (in the US state of New York) all the more ambitious. They have tried to recognize how bad things are in the so-called Darknet. This is the part of the Internet that can only be accessed with special software and can be visited anonymously. Surveillance and censorship by government agencies are almost impossible there, which is why the technology attracts dissidents and drug traffickers alike.
With their study, the researchers now want to have revealed a worldwide imbalance: In free states, significantly more people use Tor for illegal things - buy drugs, make malware that destroys computers, or download depictions of child abuse. Subjects of oppressive states did so in significantly fewer cases. The developers of the anonymous part of the Internet do not let that sit on them.
Access to the Darknet is mainly provided by the Tor browser. The Tor network consists of thousands of nodes in computers of idealists. Data is routed through them so often until it is unclear where it comes from and where it wants to go. Tor stands for "The Onion Router" - because the browser obscures the identities of the users like in an onion under several layers of digital encryption. When intelligence officers have removed all layers, they should not find anything and howl.
In 2018 and 2019, the researchers accessed data at the Tor nodes from which it can be deduced which pages the users of the browser accessed. Basically, the study published on Monday shows that 93 percent of the recorded users of the Tor browser visit sites of the tor network in the - supposedly - harmless "Clear Web" - the network in which the mainstream surfs. They remain anonymous through Tor. In the really dark corners of the Darknet, therefore, especially people in the West dived. Behind the layers of the onion hides a place of terror in the West. In non-free states, on the other hand, significantly fewer Tor users roamed around on sites of the tor network that offered illegal things.
To determine the "degree of freedom" of a country, the researchers used the index of the organization Freedom House, which is largely funded by the USA. Its index assesses, among other things, electoral processes, the rule of law and freedom of the press in a country. The researchers' conclusion: The free states suffered "a disproportionate amount of damage" from the Tor network.
Is the Darknet, which is supposed to be a retreat for the oppressed of this earth, for decadent Westerners only a transshipment point for cocaine and child pornography? The creators of the Tor browser vehemently oppose this view. In a statement on the website Ars Technica, they accuse the researchers of "demonizing" their "hidden services" as criminal. Tor's "hidden services" - these are those pages that are beyond the Clear Web and whose addresses end in ".onion".
The study has a weak point that the researchers admit and that has to do with the anonymity of the Darknet. They cannot prove that the people they cover are actually doing illegal things. They only appreciate. Those who visit the ".onion" pages are more likely to search for illegals, they argue in the study. After all, the drug black market on the Darknet has grown strongly in recent years, and at least in a 2015 survey, those surfing on the hidden sites of the tor network were mainly looking for child pornography.
The hidden services, however, argue the Tor developers, are not automatically illegal. Facebook, The New York Times and Deutsche Welle also offer their pages in this format in order to be accessible to readers risk-free even in countries that are keen on censorship and surveillance. Secure mail service providers and platforms, to which whistleblowers can leak evidence of scandals, can also be reached in this way. The engine room of the Darknet has always felt, even though the Tor network is funded by the USA. Many experts regard it as a successful example of democratically meaningful technology promotion.
So there is trouble, but the scientists had shown themselves to be quite conciliatory in their conclusion. They want to warn of a political danger resulting from the "darknet dilemma": If states simply allow the darknet to continue to exist, depictions of child abuse will continue to be spread there, more hard drugs and firearms will be distributed. Shutt down the Tor network, however, would prevent dissidents and human rights activists in undemocratic regimes from informing and discussing.
According to the logic of the scientists, the users in free states now bear the costs, the political advantages have those in less free systems. However, Tor's infrastructure is mainly operated in the USA and other free states. According to the scientists, there is a risk in the relatively high criminal use. Because it could increase the pressure on Western governments to shut down the network - at the expense of the very people who depend on it in more authoritarian states. Then it would get really dark in these countries.