What Is the Dark Web?

The dark web refers to encrypted online content that is not indexed by conventional search engines. Also known as the "darknet," the dark web is a component of the deep web that describes the wider breadth of content that does not appear through regular internet browsing activities.

Specific browsers like Tor are required to access dark web sites, which contain anonymous message boards, online marketplaces for drugs, exchanges for stolen financial and private data, and other illegal content. Transactions in this hidden economy are often paid for with bitcoin, and physical goods are routinely shipped in ways that cloak both buyers and sellers from the watchful eyes of law enforcement.

How the Dark Web Works

The dark web has become an online marketplace for illegal goods. Many of the innovations from legitimate online sellers like Amazon and eBay, like customer reviews and seller ratings, have been adopted to facilitate the sales of black market items.

The dark web attracts users who seek anonymity when conducting business. Intentions can be noble, such as with journalists seeking to interview citizens of repressive countries, where communications are monitored. Contrarily, the anonymity of the dark web attracts criminal actors like drug-dealers, hackers, and child pornography peddlers. There is also a growing service economy within the dark web in which hitmen and other illegal operatives advertise their services in ways they could not over traditional channels.

Dark Web Versus Deep Web

The dark web and the deep web are often erroneously used interchangeably. To clarify: the deep web includes all the pages that don’t pop up when you run a web search. This covers everything requiring a login, such as personal email, online banking, or other such sites. Conversely, the dark web relies on encryption to keep irrefutably nefarious content anonymous.

Special Considerations

The Size of the Dark Web Economy

In 2016, the Economist reported that drug activity fueled by the dark web grew from about $17 million in 2012 to approximately $180 million in 2015. However, these are mere estimations, as the very nature of the dark web makes it difficult to accurately gauge the economy it supports, including gun sales and other illegal transactions.

Regulating the Dark Web

Regulators have struggled to curb dark web activity. After the popular dark web drug market known as Silk Road was taken down by the FBI in 2013, Silk Road 2 popped up and immediately thrived, until the FBI and Europol shut it down in 2014. However, Silk Road 3 emerged soon thereafter.

In addition to the difficulty in shutting down dark web marketplaces, the technology has evolved to the point where the OpenBazaar open source code allows for decentralized marketplaces, similar to the way torrents allow for decentralized file sharing. Consequently, the dark web economy continues to grow, despite law enforcement's best efforts.