The Dark Web is the part of the Internet that is not accessible through traditional web browsers. Although both concepts are often conflated, the Dark Web is only one small part of the Deep Web, a concept coined in the early 2000s to describe sites and platforms that search engines do not reference. Its name comes from the well-known metaphor of the hidden part of an iceberg: the Internet being the easily accessible surface and the Deep Web being the much larger but deeper part. Although the commonly accepted scale is that the Deep Web makes up 90 percent of the World–Wide Web, exhaustive research on the question dates from two decades ago. Corporate intranets, social media accounts, cloud and email servers, and other databases, all sitting behind access control systems, are typical licit parts of the Deep Web. 

How does the Deep Web work? 

One can access licit Deep Web content, in theory, with a typical web browser, but it is most often located behind a login page and is thus not accessible to everyone. Dark Web content, on the other hand, requires specifically configured software, such as the TOR browser. TOR looks like a typical web browser on the outside. Behind the scenes, however, it relies on a dedicated network that bears the same name. It is thus both a browser and a network. TOR, which stands for The Onion Router, takes its name from its mode of connection, known as onion routing, a method for encapsulating data in several encryption layers, developed originally in the 1990s by the US Navy to protect its communications. This is because connecting to Dark Web sites requires using encryption to increase the anonymity of its users. Such encrypted networks are known as Dark Nets. Although more robust against tracking, it is not completely impervious to it. The Snowden Leaks revealed in 2013 that the NSA has been creating its own TOR nodes and integrating them into the network to covertly capture data.  

Illicit activities on the Dark Web 

Using Dark Nets such as TOR is not illegal in itself. Journalists, activists and people generally seeking to avoid censorship and government surveillance rely on Dark Nets to protect their identity and ensure their safety.  

Although not all Dark Web content is illicit in nature, the research found that “most common uses for websites on TOR hidden services are criminal, including drugs, illicit finance and pornography” (Moore & Rid, 2016). Major illicit marketplaces, such as the now-closed Silk Road, are only accessible through Dark Web connection methods. They often require Bitcoin as payment to ensure the anonymity of sellers and buyers. Malware-related services, such as ransomware and botnets, also take advantage of the Dark Web to host command-and-control servers, essential to their operations.