Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Dark Net

The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld
© 2015 Jamie Barlett
320 pages

In middle school, the Internet was a distinct place, a world apart from 'real life'.  Now it has grown so ubiquitous that it's as exciting as the paved street outside my house.  When I first heard of the dark net a few years ago, I caught a whiff of the old excitement - there are still places that haven't been bulldozed into boringness! While I had no interest in exploring the dark alleys of the internet, I took comfort in knowing they were there.  Jamie Barlett's  The Dark Net promises to reveal a little of what goes on in the digital shadows,  but its true real subject is the human condition, and how it is interacting with the possibilities that the internet and its shadows provide.  Barlett mixes criminal voyeurism and philosophical debate about the nature of freedom to great effect.

Barlett examines two different 'dark nets'; the first is the submerged internet, websites which are only accessible with certain programs and certain knowledge.  Virtually all of the websites we use on a daily basis exist both above the surface and a little below it; for instance,  banks  have ample public areas for potential customers to explore, but certain rooms, like our individual account pages, are slightly submerged and accessible only through our username and password. But there's a deeper level to the web,  websites that require specific browsers and knowledge of their URL to appear. (One address  Barlett finds here actually requires a series of cookies from other websites:  users must visit a set of websites in a particular order before being able to load the target successfully, otherwise, an attempt to load the address will produce a completely-different looking site.)  On these hidden pages -- accessibly only through secure browsers -- anything is for sale, from illicit drugs to lives, but there are also safe havens for whistle-blowers to upload documents to the media, or hide from opinion-policing.

Connected but not limited to this is the second 'dark' aspect that Barlett explores, the effect that the internet's anonymity and diverse opportunities have on the human psyche. Here he catalogs support groups for destructive behavior: websites promoting anorexia and suicide, for instance,  or which radicalize political opinions and produce bombers out of disaffected coeds.  The websites he explores here operate on the surface net -- places like 4chan and reddit -- but the behavior promoted reveals the darkness inside the human soul itself,  its capacity for brutality.  In one case, a woman who foolishly posts a photo of herself without clothing is identified by background information, and the 4chan residents promptly start sending the photos to everyone on the woman's facebook page to publicly humiliate her.

Despite this catalog of horrors, from child pornography to terrorist communities, The Dark Net  is not a polemic against the evils of new-fangled technology.  Early on, he writes about the enthusiasm early adopters had for the internet, the generation of 'cypherpunks'  who viewed the digital world as their long-waited escape from the medieval dreariness of nation-states and castles of control and surveillance. The internet was anonymity and freedom -- liberty.  Although the internet was normalized relatively quickly in the 1990s and early 2000s, saturating the geeks' playground with boring e-businesses and teenagers posting their journals online, technology did arrive to give the cyphers more of what they wanted: anonymous browsing via browsers like Tor, and secure modes of payment like Bitcoin.  Just as the lightless ocean depths create extraordinary creatures, so to have the pressures of illicit marketplaces created  new ways of communicating and doing business, creating payment structures that  allow some degree of trust but without legal exposure.  Just as PGP encryption for secure messages has filtered down into email clients like Thunderbird, so too  may multisignature escrow accounts for online payments one day appear above the surface for those who prefer not to use credit cards online for mundane security reasons.

The Dark Net is disturbing reading at times, particularly the chapter on child pornography.  There are lessons to be learned here, though, like the ways that highly specific interest groups amplify their members' devotion as they enter into an echo chamber where increasingly more strident views and increasingly more antagonistic behavior are viewed as perfectly acceptable. (Barlett believes, for instance, that child pornography grows off of increasingly compulsive consumption of ordinary pornography, as the user requires increasingly more provocative content to engender excitement.) The conclusion is worth reading in itself, as Barlett uses two people -- a technohumanist and an anarcho-primitivist -- to examine different views of freedom. Although both view the present state of things as unattractive for shared reasons, their solutions are utter opposites.  Ultimately, although there's much here to give one pause about human nature, I still find myself faintly relieved to know (as I did in reading A Renegade History of the United States) that rebellion lives.

The Internet Police: How Crime Went Online, Nate Anderson
#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media, Cass Sunstein. Book about how highly specific internet filters and communities lead to increased polarization and disaffection.
Spam Nation, Brian Krebs


  1. Extraordinary! Almost like genetics; steps toward a "conscious" web?...

  2. I've got about 10-12 books on related subjects in the pipeline. They should start showing up in the next few months.

    Oh, and I think AI is coming. It's just a matter of when. After that world-shattering event? Who can tell.....

  3. This and another couple of books coming were inspired by the big WannaCry attack a few weeks back. Were you affected by that? (The books were already on my list, but when the wave hit I realized: this is the perfect time to read them.)

  4. Only heard about WannaCry on the news. No direct effect to me here. I did use it to beat some of the techno/Internet over-optimists with though!


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