The Dark Web: What is it Exactly and What can you Find There?

You may have heard of the dark web. It’s usually described as a ‘hidden’ and dangerous part of the internet where all sorts of shady business happens. Most internet users won’t find themselves on the dark web regularly, if at all. This is understandable, because some parts of it are unsafe. If you’re curious to find out more, this article will tell you everything you need to know about the dark web and how to gain access to it while still staying safe.

First, we’ll introduce you to what the dark web is exactly and what happens on it. Then you will learn about VPNs and the Tor browser and how these tools are essential if you want to surf the dark web. Then, we’ll give a quick guide you can use to access the dark web relatively safely. If you really want to stay safe, we have prepared a comprehensive 16 step plan to safely browse the dark web. Make sure to check all of our security measures before doing so. Finally, you will find out that visiting the dark web is legal, but that some of the things that happen on there are not.

Stay Safe on the Dark Web!

Accessing the dark web is very easy, but so is getting into deep trouble because of it. Therefore, it’s important to always keep your online safety and privacy in mind. We highly recommend using a VPN to encrypt and anonymize all your internet traffic. Aside from that, always make sure you have up-to-date antivirus software running on your device. This way it’s more difficult to intercept your data, monitor your online actions or infect your PC.

A VPN will protect you when you’re surfing the surface or deep web, but also when you want to browse the dark web. With it, your Internet Service Provider (ISP), governments and hackers will have a much harder time to figure out what you’ve been doing online.

An excellent VPN for the dark web: NordVPN

NordVPN is a high quality VPN provider which allows you to protect multiple devices at the same time. They offer strong encryption and an array of extra safety measures to choose from. This makes NordVPN a great provider to use when you venture onto the dark web. Moreover, they offer good customer support and are very user-friendly. Read all about this provider in our full review of NordVPN. NordVPN

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Note: Technically using the Tor browser (with a VPN for added security) is not the only way to visit the dark web. However, it is the only way that is more or less safe! Nowadays Tor also offers a service that allows you to access dark web pages without actually downloading the Tor browser. This project is called Tor2web and can be used to navigate to dark web pages from your standard browser (Google Chrome for instance). Nevertheless, even Tor themselves indicate this isn’t nearly as safe as using the Tor browser to visit the dark web. Without the Tor browser it’s much easier for cyber criminals to find out your identity and inject malware into your PC for example. As such we strongly discourage this way of visiting the dark web!

What is the Dark Web?

The dark web has many different visitors, including drug traders, computer nerds, swindlers, people who fight against censorship, and regular people who simply wish to communicate with others without the government looking over their shoulder. The latter often happens in countries like China and Iran.

To understand what the dark web is exactly, we need to differentiate between a few different terms. The internet is often described as consisting of three parts: the surface web, the deep web, and the dark web. These words are often used the wrong way, which can cause a lot of confusion. Here are a few main points you might want to keep in mind:

  • The internet is a worldwide network.
  • The web is a communication tool that uses the internet network.
  • The web consists of: the surface web, the deep web, and the dark web.

Each of those three terms will be explained below.

Dark Web Surface Web Graphic Iceberg

The surface web

The surface web is what most of us use every day. It’s accessible through regular browsers like Chrome, Safari and Firefox. This very article is part of it: you can access it anywhere and at any time, as long as you have an internet connection and a browser. Other websites including those of online stores and businesses are also part of the surface web. This is the part of the web that can be reached easily by using a search engine like Google.

The deep web

The deep web is the part of the internet that houses very specific information. Most of us won’t have access to this information, and it isn’t accessible through search engines either. Mostly, these are pages and databases that are only meant for a certain group of people within an organization.

In order to get access, you need to know the exact web address (URL). In some cases, you need a password as well. Examples of pages on the deep web are some university library databases, reports and journals that only subscribers have access to, and the timeline of your private Facebook account.

The dark web

Finally, there is that part of the internet we call the dark web. It’s more difficult to reach than the surface or deep web, since it’s only accessible through special browsers such as the Tor browser. The dark web is the unregulated part of the internet. No organization, business or government is in charge of it or able to apply rules. This is exactly the reason why the dark web is commonly associated with illegal practices.

It’s impossible to reach the dark web through a ‘normal’ browser, such as Google Chrome or Edge. In the Tor browser you won’t be able to find any dark websites ending in .com or .org. Instead, URLs usually consist of a random mix of letters and numbers and end in .onion. Moreover, the URLs of websites on the dark net change regularly.

Lady Justice

In one word: yes. The dark web and the Tor browser are legal to use in most countries. Should you, however, choose to act on the dark web in a manner which is not consistent with the law, that of course would be illegal. As such, we emphasize the importance of sticking to the law of the country you’re in.

Nevertheless, people often forget that the dark web and the Tor browser are merely tools to exert your right to privacy and freedom of speech. The United Nations established privacy as a basic human right. The following articles confirm this:

  • United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) 1948, Article 12
  • International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) 1966, Article 17
  • American Convention on Human Rights, Article 11
  • American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, Article 5
  • European Convention on Human Rights, Article 8

Over 130 countries that are part of the United Nations have laws concerning the protection of their citizens’ protection. Chances are, this will be the case where you live as well.

Browsing the dark web can make you look suspicious

In short, navigating the dark web isn’t illegal in most countries. However, it could make you look suspicious in the eyes of your local law enforcement. A lot of the stuff sold on the dark web is illegal, so, obviously, purchasing those illegal items is prohibited. Since these goods are usually only available on the dark web, anyone surfing this part of the internet could buy them. This is why governments might try to keep tabs on you if you visit the dark web.

Even though the use of the dark web is legal in most countries, the illegal activities that regularly occur on there make the dark web a sketchy place. Therefore, it might not be the best part of the internet to visit regularly if you’re a regular, law-abiding citizen.

Why and How Did the Dark Web Come Into Existence?

The dark web was not created by criminals who wanted an anonymous way to communicate. It was actually developed by the US government. How did this happen?

Spy communication

Agents from several “three-letter agencies”, like the CIA, were stationed in many far-flung places. There was a true global network of American spies who collected information and intelligence for the US. During the 1990s, information became increasingly digitized and there was no longer a need for these spies to relay their reports through old-fashioned media like radios or letters. The internet and new cryptographic techniques replaced those old communication media.

As all of this information could suddenly be sent through the internet, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory started a program that would eventually become Tor (The Onion Router) in 1995. With Tor, the agencies had an encrypted line of communications with their field agents.

Anonymity for all

anonymous

Around 1997 the project was passed on to the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), who in turn gave it over to several civil rights groups. Now, the question of course is, why would the government hand this technique and network over to civilian advocacy groups? There are some people who believe that Tor was never really given up by the US government.

Another explanation is that they had to open up the anonymous network because every US agent had to be able to use it from anywhere across the world at any time. That made the network vulnerable to infiltration, which is why other people could start using it.

Moreover, if only U.S. intelligence agents would be using this network, then obviously any communication taken from this network would be highly valuable. Therefore, it would be better to open the network up to many other people, so that the intelligence communications would be awash in a sea of non-government communications. Like this, everybody would remain anonymous, and U.S. agents could use the network to relay their reports.

Why Don’t they just Shut Down the Dark Web?

While the Tor network became available to anyone with an internet connection, more and more servers were being set up across the globe. The network therefore became far more decentralized. With each new connection in a different country, the U.S. jurisdiction over the internet became smaller. The power of a network resides in the fact that it cannot be turned off from just one location. If you pull the plug from the American side, the rest of the network does not cease to exist.

Apart from the inability of any country to completely shut down the network, the U.S. also benefit from having this network around — even if it also hosts illegal activities. It is still being used as a channel for covert communications by intelligence agencies. It is also one of the best tools that political activists have to stand up, leak, whistle-blow etc. against authoritarian states that the U.S. are very critical of.

Whether it is Venezuela or Iran, the U.S. are glad that people have a tool like Tor around to make life harder for those regimes. Of course, this also applies to the US, as was made clear by the emergence of Wikileaks and the whistleblowing activities of Snowden.

A double-edged sword

Because of the above-mentioned reasons, the dark web can be both beneficial and dangerous at the same time. Because it is helpful in multiple ways, the US government does not want to shut it down. Even if they did, they would have to try to shut it down in its entirety and get the compliance and cooperation of dozens of countries that have no interest in cooperating with the US.

What national authorities are able to do is cooperate to close down certain sites and hold their owners, administrators, users etc. accountable. Often when a dark web site does get closed down, multiple agencies have worked together to make that happen. For example, if the US department of Justice wants to shut down a Dutch marijuana-selling dark market, that would require the cooperation of the Dutch police, Europol, and possibly a number of other agencies and authorities. The following image showcases the number of agencies involved with seizing 1 dark market.

Dark Market closed down

Taking down this particular website required the cooperation of at least ten different agencies from at least four different countries. The fact that all of these agencies had to cooperate to bring down this site shows how tricky it can be to take down parts of the dark web, let alone the entire dark web.

Accessing the Dark Web

If you want to visit the dark web you need to keep in mind that this can be dangerous if you do not take the right precautions. To visit the dark web in the safest possible way we have created a guide full of tips and tricks. Below you will find a slimmed down version of this guide, with the bare essentials. It is crucial to remember that the following steps will keep you relatively safe, but in no way completely anonymous.

  • Install a VPN (we suggest NordVPN) on your device and switch it on
  • Make sure you’ve got up-to-date antivirus software on your device
  • Download and install the anonymous Tor browser
  • Start the Tor browser
  • Make sure the running of scripts in the Tor browser is forbidden
  • Optional: change the security settings in Tor
  • Surf the dark web, for example by starting at the Hidden Wiki. The link is Hidden Wiki

Finally, before getting on the dark web please remember that it can be a very dangerous place. Take our warnings to heart and don’t make it easy for malware and hackers to affect your device!

What is Tor

Tor (the onion router) is free open-source software that functions as a browser. Unlike browsers such as Chrome, Firefox, and Edge, Tor aims to keep its users anonymous. In order to make this happen, the Tor browser channels your internet activities through several IP-addresses/hosts that represent the layers of an onion. Your searches travel through this network of nodes. At every node, part of the encryption is peeled off. Eventually your information ends up at the website of your choice. This process of onion routing aims to keep the user anonymous.

Girl retrieving an internet file through Tor Nodes

The Tor browser is used to access the dark web. As mentioned, this is the easiest way to reach URLs with the suffix .onion. This suffix refers to the onion routing that Tor uses to secure anonymous browsing: encryption comes in layers, like the layers of an onion. Websites can decide to use an .onion domain because they do not want everyone to know they exist. This could be because they simply want to be exclusive, or because they contain content that’s questionable or illegal.

Tor can give you access to the whole web, regardless of whether the websites are regulated or not. Although Tor can be used to access the dark web, most of its users still remain on the surface web. In other words: Tor is mostly used to anonymize online browsing, but is also the main route to the dark web.

Tor over VPN or VPN over Tor?

You may not have realized it but it makes an actual difference if you connect with the Tor network while you are connected to a VPN or the other way around.

The added advantage of installing a VPN before getting on the Tor network is that your ISP or any other interested party (government agencies, hackers etc.) won’t know that you have signed on to the Tor network because your internet traffic is already being encrypted. Sadly, the mere fact that you would want to sign on to an anonymous network such as Tor is enough to cast suspicion on yourself, in the eyes of certain groups.

In addition, although the Tor network is encrypted and anonymous, it won’t stop your ISP or anyone else snooping on your internet traffic through your IP address from knowing that you signed on to Tor. That is of course, unless, you first connect with a VPN.

It is also possible to get a subscription to a VPN through the Tor network. This means that you first sign on to Tor, then in the Tor browser you would go to the website of e.g. NordVPN and get a VPN. The added benefit would be that your ISP won’t know that you have any interest in a VPN service.

In our experience though, getting onto the Tor network generally looks far more suspicious due to its association with the dark web. That’s why we always recommend getting a good VPN subscription first. If you’re interested in learning more about good VPN alternatives and which one is right for you, have a look at our reviews.

The Hidden Wiki

Navigating the dark web can be quite difficult. Starting at a website like the Hidden Wiki can help you find your way. The Hidden Wiki provides links to search engines and websites, so you can navigate the dark web more easily. This makes the Hidden Wiki a good starting point for when you don’t know where to go. There are some categories on the Hidden Wiki that you want to steer clear of. Always be cautious of the links you click, even on websites that seem legitimate.

You can find the Hidden Wiki by copying the following URL into your Tor browser: http://hdwikihod77v6fas.onion/. The web addresses on the dark web do change constantly, but there are many websites on the surface web that will provide you with the right up-to-date URL for this particular page.

Another good place to start is our websites worth visiting on the dark web article.

The Dark Web: myths

There are a lot of stories going around about the craziest services and pages hiding on the dark web. Ordering hitmen is apparently only one of the available examples. Although we cannot be certain that some of this behavior doesn’t take place on the dark web, the majority of rumors surrounding the dark web such as online hitmen or red rooms is pure fiction.

For example, one hitmen-for-hire website called Besa Mafia definitely existed, except that it never carried out any hits. It was just stealing money from gullible dark web users who wanted somebody dead. Still, many other questionable things, such as drugs and weapons, are available on the dark web.

Due to the existence of so many nefarious websites, the dark web has gotten a very bad reputation. It is often believed that anything and everything that happens on the dark web must be illegal. This is not true. The dark web is also a safe haven for journalists, whistleblowers, and citizens living under dictatorial regimes.

Furthermore, some of the more shady websites can also have positive side-effects. Our aim is to take a nuanced approach, highlighting both positive and negative consequences. We only want our readers to be safe if they decide for themselves to venture into the dark recesses of the web.

What Happens on the Dark Web?

weapons online

It’s very difficult to figure out exactly what happens on the dark web. As mentioned earlier, you need to know specific URLs in order to get to the right pages. It’s quite hard to stumble onto the right website when all the web addresses are random combinations of digits and letters.

We can’t make any definite claims, as the dark web is constantly changing and remains largely hidden to many. However, in general, these are some of the things you may find on the dark web:

  • Black markets
  • Fraudulent or otherwise dangerous websites
  • Email services, fora and other forms of anonymous online communication
  • Botnets
  • Bitcoin and cryptocurrency websites

Black markets

black market drugs

The black market has flourished since the birth of the internet. The dark web is home to many a black marketplace, where all sorts of goods can be sold and bought. The existence of such markets is illegal, although some public figures, scientists and academics have also highlighted some positive side-effects.

The Silk Road was one of the first well-known black markets on the dark web. Users openly talked about drug-use on the site and uploaded photos of their products. The website eventually gained the nickname “The eBay of Vice”. After several years of investigating the United States authorities managed to track down the admin (Ross Ulbricht), who was working under the pseudonym “Dread Pirate Roberts” on the website. He was captured in San Francisco in October 2013 and the website was shut down.

However, after Ulbricht’s arrest, many imitation websites popped up. There are more black market websites available than ever on the dark web. Silk Road was the first of its kind, now there are many different ones competing to be the next.

Fraudulent or otherwise dangerous websites

dangerous websites

The dark web is also swarming with fake and dangerous websites. That’s why it’s important to always be careful and to use both a VPN and good antivirus software. Don’t ever click on a link on the dark web if you don’t know where it’ll lead. Your computer could be hacked or infected with malware before you know what’s happening.

Moreover, the dark web houses all websites that wouldn’t be tolerated on the surface web due to their content. Sadly, you can actually find things such as animal abuse or child pornography on there. Therefore, it might be wise to stay away from this part of the internet alltogether.

Email services, forums, and other forms of anonymous communication

The dark web is also used for anonymous communication. Whistleblowers and journalists might use these routes to leak or find sensitive information. People who want to report a company or government for an illegal act can use the dark web to try and stay anonymous. Journalists can use it to get in contact with anonymous sources. Both the WikiLeaks network and whistleblowers like Edward Snowden have used the dark web in the past to spread their message.

While the people in these examples did what they did in the name of internet freedom and transparency, not everyone has those same motivations. Criminals and terrorists will also use anonymous communication on the dark web to try and stay clear of law enforcement.

Botnets

A botnet is a network of infected devices that can be operated by the hacker that controls them. Often, the devices in the network are infected without their owners being aware of it. The hacker in charge of the botnet can use the devices to spread viruses, phish for private information, or facilitate DDoS attacks. The botnet is less likely to be discovered, taken down, or taken over if it operates on the dark web. On the dark web some hackers sell the botnets they have created. In exchange for a lot of money you can get control over a large network of infected devices.

Bitcoin and cryptocurrency websites

bitcoin

If you visit the dark web, you’ll find that almost everything is paid for with cryptocurrencies. These cryptocurrencies are online currencies that see worldwide use. More accurately said, cryptocurrencies are digital assets. The currency is tied to the value of a decentralized digital ledger, such as the blockchain protocol. This basically means that cryptocurrencies are not like regular currencies because their value and history of exchanges is visible on the blockchain, rather than a series of banks and other financial institutions.

However, they are digital assets rather than currencies, because you can generally only exchange these assets for goods online, and not offline. Nevertheless, because of the blockchain method, cryptocurrencies make anonymous exchanges possible that are ideal for shady business on the dark web.

The most well-known cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, is also in use outside of the dark web. However, recent incidents show that the currency might not be as anonymous as some people might have hoped. Other types of cryptocurrency are also very popular. Some new cryptocurrencies are constantly trying to improve on safeguarding the anonymity of the people using them.

Final Thoughts

We want to stress that we advise you NOT to use the dark web without first having taken the proper safety measures. Curiosity is understandable, but it isn’t worth exposing yourself to the dangers of this unregulated part of the web. In the end, there is criminal activity on the dark web. If you do end up visiting the dark web, always take precautions. A good VPN service and solid anti-malware are essential, but still leave you exposed. The 15 step plan is one of the safest ways to get onto the dark web. Ultimately, you access the dark web at your own peril. Stay curious, but stay safe too!