“Life is short. Have an affair.” Since mid-August, the slogan of the online infidelity site Ashley Madison has become a household phrase. Shortly after the hack, those individuals responsible for breaching Ashley Madison’s servers – the so-called Impact Team – posted the list of 32 million names and e-mail addresses to the Dark Web.
Sex sells and a rising tide floats all boats. So as the infamy of Ashley Madison increases, so too does public awareness of the Dark Web. The Internet’s seedy underbelly is accessible only through the use of specially configured browsers that allow people to post and view content anonymously. This obscurity has allowed the Impact Team to dodge law-enforcement’s efforts to catch the hackers, at least thus far.
Worse things than a list of real or attempted adulterers can be found on the Dark Web. It is home to illegal marketplaces – where assassins, drugs and weapons are accessible using Bitcoin – as well as pornography sites and web pages hosting despicable child-abuse imagery. Indeed, one recent study by Gareth Owen and Nick Savage found that upward of 80 per cent of the visits to some commonly used Dark Web sites flow to child-abuse sites.
Yet, the Dark Web is not all bad.
Another study released in tandem with the the one from Mr. Owen and Mr. Savage, presents statistical evidence to suggest that one of the primary systems (The Onion Router or Tor) used to surf the web anonymously and to access the Dark Web is widely employed in repressive countries.
In repressive regimes like those in Russia, Iran and China, online anonymity-granting technologies can help citizens circumvent state censorship – a positive for human rights and freedom of expression. In this use of the network, citizens can engage with and build civil society digitally or even communicate their stories in a relatively safe manner with journalists.
The point is that the Dark Web is basically a tool. The effect that the network has is dependent upon how it is used. It produces good things (free expression and access to information) and it produces bad things (illegal markets and child-abuse sites).
And so, public policy faces a true dilemma. No matter what you do, either taking down or leaving up the Dark Web, can cause harm to society. So what is to be done?
Because the Dark Web rides upon the same globe-spanning physical infrastructure as the top-level Internet, it cannot be permanently taken down without harming the Internet as a whole. Moreover, pulling computers and servers out of the Tor network would cause harm to those individuals in repressive regimes that rely upon the anonymity of the system for good reasons.
We are largely stuck with the good and the bad. But this does not mean we have to resign ourselves to the digital abyss.
The solution lies in a genuinely familiar offline activity: policing. To maintain order and prevent harm in every other aspect of human society, we apply judicious policing. To think that these methods are not needed in cyberspace is just silly.
Indeed, governments, often in partnership with private corporations, have already started to police the Dark Web. Law enforcement took down the infamous illegal marketplaces Silk Road 1.0 and 2.0. And large coalitions of law enforcement routinely stop child-abuse rings. These and other examples demonstrate that policing the Dark Web is possible and both as efficient and effective as offline policing.
In policing the Dark Web, law enforcement should take advantage of the fact that anonymity cuts both ways. This is seen most clearly with the takedown of Silk Road 1.0. At that time, the main site administrator – who went by the moniker Dread Pirate Roberts – compounded his troubles in an alleged murder-for-hire plot, in which authorities say $80,000 was offered to an undercover police officer. Technological tricks are still needed, but crime remains a human, and therefore social, activity. Capitalizing upon the flaws of people is often going to be the surest route to arrests.
Because technological efforts to weaken or break the system are riddled with problems of either stifling freedom of expression efforts or garnering technological counteraction from online activists, the best way forward is to manage, and hopefully minimize, the costs of the anonymous network through active and judicious policing.
This approach allows the network to be used for good in repressive regimes, while catching and punishing those who want to harm society. It is not a perfect outcome, but it is the best we can do since the Dark Web is here to stay.