Last month, a federal jury in New York convicted Ross Ulbricht on seven drug and conspiracy charges related to the operation of the now notorious online bazaar the Silk Road. The Silk Road — which at its peak listed 10,000 products for sale, 70% of which were drugs, and did over $200 million in transactions — is, 17 months after its seizure by the FBI, still the only site to have entered the public consciousness from the enormous, complex, and confusing part of the internet known as the Dark Web.
Indeed, in the popular imagination the Silk Road is still, if not a metonym for the Dark Web, the entire thing itself.
That's far from the truth. In the aftermath of Ulbricht's conviction, the vast internet netherworld made famous by the Silk Road is still a frenzied hive of human activity — some of it criminal, some of it fascinating, much of it mundane, all of it deeply foreign to the way most of us experience the web.
Trying to define the Dark Web, variously referred to as the Deep Web and the Deepnet, is difficult, but it's probably best thought of as a big anonymous subfloor of the internet that you can't access with a standard browser.
Over the past week, I spent my first sustained period of time hanging out in the Dark Web, using Tor, an encrypted anonymous browsing software. I wanted to know what the so-called Tor Hidden Services (servers that only receive inbound traffic through Tor networks) look like in the aftermath of the Silk Road ruling. I wanted to know what goes on in the fabled — at least among some 4chan and Reddit users — Tor image boards. More than anything, I wanted to start to get to know the shape of a part of web culture that is as widely reviled as it is poorly understood.
Here's what I learned.
1. It's Incredibly Easy To Get In
Google "Tor Browser." Click on Tor Project website. Install "Tor Browser." Open "Tor Browser." Run a 10-second automatic configuration.
Congrats, you're surfing the Dark Web!
2. Once You're in, Finding Your Way Around Is an Adventure
Tor looks like any other modern browser and uses the basic units of internet navigation — search and hyperlinking — and yet trying to use Tor like you use Chrome is basically impossible. The reason: .tor pages — otherwise known as .onions — go down constantly. Some of them are taken down by law enforcement. Some of them are taken down because the host gets spooked. Most of them go down for reasons that are totally opaque.
Because of this, the easiest way to navigate Tor is through portals like Hidden Wiki: basically old Yahoo-style portals that are categorized by, or at least gesture toward, the major areas of activity on Tor. Here's a clearnet (that's what Dark Web dudes and dudettes call the normal internet) version so you can get an idea. For a network that represents the bleeding edge of the internet in the popular imagination, it's a surprisingly, even charmingly, retro way of experiencing the web.
3. Drugs Are Still Everywhere
The Silk Road may be gone, but in its place has emerged a constellation of onions devoted to selling you drugs and delivering them to your doorstep. Take just The Peoples Drug Store, which touts itself as "The Darkweb's Best Drug Supplier":
The Peoples Drug Store offers heroin, weed, ecstasy, speed, prescription pills, and both crack and powder cocaine:
It also offers international shipping, and escrow. And if you have a wallet full of bitcoins, it's as easy to order a gram of powder coke as it is to buy a sack of flour from FreshDirect.
I picked Peoples because I came across its ads the most — on imageboards and Tor search engines — but I found at least a half dozen other sites with the same kind of easy-to-use drop-down menus offering the full complement of uppers, downers, and everything in between.
4. So Is Child Pornography
Every major Tor link dump includes at least a handful of links that either explicitly or subtly label themselves as child porn forums. It's simply a major part of, or at least an active audience in, the hidden internet.
5. So Are iPhones, Guns, Credit Cards, Hackers, and Passports
By far the most professional-looking hidden service on Tor is TorSupermarket. Imagine what it would look like if Apple designed an illegal marketplace and you'll start to get the picture; that's fitting, because TorSupermarket's business is unlocked Apple devices (and televisions, and gaming computers, and fancy sound systems).
Boasting a "100 percent satisfaction guarantee" and a satisfied-customer testimonial section, TorSupermarket is legitimately more impressive than half of the normal internet web stores I've ordered things from in the past year.
Less slick but similarly direct are onions offering PayPal accounts worth thousands of dollars (on Automated Store, a $1,500 PayPal account costs about $140), credit cards (five working credit card numbers, with all of the relevant information including social security numbers, for $40), guns (a Walther PPK, James Bond's pistol of choice, sells at EuroGuns for about $650), passports, hacking services (one such site claims to be able to digitally smear someone as a child porn enthusiast for 500 euros), and full American citizenship, or at least the requisite documents:
Yes, $5,900 may seem like a lot of money, but compared to the $500,000 U.S. Citizenship and Immigrant Services requires foreigners to fork over in order to obtain a green card through investment, it's a steal!
6. ...and Personal Emails
Hard as it is to believe, the image boards on Tor are even harder to get a handle on than 4chan and 8chan (the defacto "worst places on the internet" most people have heard of/been to).
It is commonly presumed that Tor image boards are the subterranean chambers where memes come from, forming in a kind of pure internet magma before being extruded onto the great social plains of the mainstream web to settle and cool. In my week in the Dark Web, that's not what I found at all. Rather, the Tor chans seem to be pure filtrations of the worst tendencies of the messiest, most sociopathic parts of the open internet. They are 4chan and 8chan shorn of the vaguely noble pretext of free discussion, resplendently hateful.
For example, in the /baphomet Overchan, the even-worse cousin of an 8chan doxxing board, users regularly share Pastebin links that contain hundreds and hundreds of personal email addresses, with login information. Sometimes these dumps seem to have a vague reason behind them — say, doxxing other doxxers, but more often they simply seem to be the emails of unlucky nobodies.
If there is a single place on the internet that will make you feel bad about the world, this is it.
7. The Hidden Services All Seem to Run on...Trust?
When your pound of cocaine doesn't arrive in the mail on time, your recourse, legal or otherwise, is limited, particularly when you have no idea who you paid for it. Some sites do offer escrow, and testimonials on demand through Tor encrypted email, but for the most part, buyers are buying on good faith, especially given how often onions go down. While the idea of trust between anonymous parties has basically been programmed out of the mainstream internet, the hidden services on Tor still depend on trust to a huge extent.
On one level: obviously. It's a black market. At the same time, it's odd to see that a space that hosts some of the most technologically sophisticated, paranoid, and occasionally loathsome users of the internet is still governed by the loose social contracts of a pre-2000 internet.
8. It's Impossible to Tell Who Is Full of Shit...
My favorite, if I can use that adjective, character in the Dark Web is a guy (or girl!) who goes by the handle Old Man Fixer, and runs a site called Old Man Fixing Services that is kind of like Magic for Tor:
I can get you anything from wholesale drugs and precursors to wholesale weapons. From hacking to immigration services. Insider trading info to exotic pets. Crooked government officials to the best discrete lawyers. Real university degrees to snuff films. You name it, and I can get it for you or connect you with someone who can get it for you. For a more complete (but still not full) list of what I can get or who I can connect you with, please see the Services page.
I have dedicated my life to getting to know the right people. If you need anything at all, let me know. Even if something's not listed on this site, email me and ask.
Clearly, we're meant to imagine a kind of Harvey Keitel-from-Pulp Fiction guide to the criminal internet underworld, capable with his or her vast resources of guiding you into or out of...whatever.
Clearly, we have no way to tell if Old Man Fixer is a grizzled noir anti-hero, an FBI agent, or a mischievous teenager in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. This is both the fun and the scary part of the Dark Web: There's almost no way to know how seriously to take most people on it.
Like, if there's a human who can really find snuff films and pet lions and crooked port officials for the right price (as Old Man Fixer claims to be able to do), I hope they lock him up and throw away the key! But if it's just a bored teen with a gothic imagination, you know, get her into a creative writing program!
9. ...but Probably Most People Are Full of Shit
Ross Ulbricht got caught after he tried to hire a hitman who turned out to be a DEA agent. There are still links to "cleaners" and "hitmen" everywhere you turn on the Dark Web, but it's hard to lend them much credence given the fact that one of the most common landing pages on Tor is this:
The onions also host a fair amount of crackpot libertarian types who seem preoccupied with getting ready for the revolution. What kind of revolution? That's never stated. But preparedness guides and "intel" forums abound.
What kind of intel? How serious? How devastating to sovereign nations? Well, here's a sampling of topics from the popular IntelExchange:
10. There Are Some Incredible Gems, if You Know Where to Look
The best page on the Dark Web is Beneath VT, a remarkably comprehensive written and illustrated guide to exploring the vast network of steam tunnels that runs below Virginia Tech. Is this illegal? Yes, it's a Class 1 misdemeanor in Virginia. Is it dangerous? Yeah, kind of, if you go around grabbing steam pipes. But it also seems like the kind of mildly subversive, secret-clubby, victimless hijink that Thomas Pynchon would be really into if he were an undergrad today. It's smart American dork samizdat of the best kind. And if the Dark Web had more stuff like this, it would be a much better place.
A week is obviously an insufficient amount of time to judge conclusively any subculture on the internet, let alone one that defines itself by its obscurity. And yet, a few things became clear to me. While I initially found the difficulty and unreliability of the Dark Web frustrating, by the end of the week I realized there was something intoxicating and even thrilling about using an internet that is not designed around me. It brought back some of my earliest memories of using a computer, clicking around Prodigy as an 8-year-old for the simple joy of clicking around. I remembered the wonderful strangeness of it, how new and funny and scary it was. Well-meaning people have tried to re-create these serendipitous conditions, but they only really mean anything when they arise on their own.
In other words, as shocking as some of the content on the Dark Web is, the form of the thing feels somehow equally, if not more, subversive. If you think about the internet as a physical space, going from the standard-platform-dominated web most people use every day to the Dark Web feels like going from the orderly blocks of a suburb to the improvisational ramblings of an old world city. Despite the sewage, it's all very charming.
None of this is to say that the Tor Dark Web is good (or bad!). It is simply to say that the way it grows allows different types of life, bad, good, and weird, to thrive. And that you probably can't have one type without having them all.