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6/15/2020
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Jan Youngren
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The Bright Side of the Dark Web

As the hitmen and fraudsters retreat, the Dark Web could become freedom's most important ally.

The Dark Web has had some seriously bad press. It's blamed for everything from the proliferation of child pornography, to facilitating cyber fraud, peddling hard drugs, hacking email inboxes, selling malware, supporting ISIS, and even allowing people to hire contract killers. But what if there was a brighter side to the phenomenon that we've learned to see as "dark" and "shady"? While it would be foolish to ignore the very real abuses on the Dark Web, there's actually a case to be made in its defense, from freeing dissidents to share information, to protecting whistleblowers from persecution. Here are three reasons to give it a second glance.

A Dissident's Best Friend
The modern world is filled with regimes that are hungry for information about their citizens. They may vary in the degrees of repression and brutality, but governments from Beijing to Washington, DC, are ready and able to censor information and put dissidents behind bars if the truths they hold are inconvenient.

The Dark Web complicates the task of secret police, allowing whistleblowers to leave tranches of information about anything from illegal diamond mining to nuclear arsenals. For instance, back in 2013, The Guardian revealed that the National Security Agency (NSA) had been monitoring the phone calls of American citizens, whether or not they were suspected of a crime. Edward Snowden resorted to the Dark Web when he leaked many of the revelations that helped to unmask NSA surveillance. In fact, the Dark Web has proved so useful to whistleblowers that the CIA itself launched a Tor-based site to receive leaks from its sources. So, while the Dark Web has been slaughtered in some corners of the establishment, at least one organization sees its brighter side.

A Place to Evade Oppressive Censorship
The Dark Web isn't just a vital protective shield for whistleblowers. It's also a way to evade censors and ensure that democratic debate can continue, safe from the prying eyes of the state. The NSA revelations showed how pervasive surveillance can be. But censorship is just as serious, albeit less so in the USA. Take China, for instance, where the Dark Web is becoming an essential tool for concealing communications from the state. With 200 million cameras in the Skynet system, the "Great Firewall" monitoring data leaking out of the country, and rampant use of apps by the government to track phones, dissidents would be fools not to use Tor and the Dark Web.

But this isn't just a Chinese problem. Nation-states across the world know that the Internet is a dangerous force. From Uganda to the United Arab Emirates, autocrats have the power to block standard connections, force websites to close, and surveil users — making the lives of dictators much easier. As Cindy Cohn of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) puts it, "We see Tor use go up whenever a dictatorship takes over or a coup occurs. Tibetans, United Arab Emirates, Tunisia, Egypt. The list goes on and on."

Tor and the Dark Web hold out hope. When Venezuela tightened censorship on the Web, Tor forums filled with angry citizens, fueling resistance. Russians have used Tor routinely for years, and the same applies to Saudi Arabians and Iranians. It even helped to spark the "Arab Spring" of 2010–2011. In fact, Tor became so important for dissidents that Facebook created a special Tor gateway for protesters to use. Without it, staging resistance movements around the world would be far tougher.

Supporting a Free Press
When journalists investigate the powerful, they inevitably encounter pushback. Frequently, journalists find that their sources become uncooperative, particularly when they are investigating states, corporations, or terrorist groups. As a result, Dark Web tools such as SecureDrop have become widely popular among journalists for receiving information from sources securely. Researchers also use Tor to liaise with their sources. In many cases, there simply isn't another way to communicate without fear of disruption or detection. ProPublica pioneered this kind of journalism, creating a dedicated Tor site for sources and research projects. With those protections in place, it has provided a potent tool for challenging the powerful — something only Tor's encryption can provide.

As with all technologies, the Dark Web is only as evil — or good — as we make it. Defeating censorship, protecting journalistic sources, and helping whistleblowers are all huge benefits of the Dark Web. As the hitmen and fraudsters retreat, the Dark Web could become freedom's most important ally.

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Jan Youngren is a cybersecurity and consumer protection specialist at VPNpro focused on investigations that help readers navigate the complex infosecurity sphere. His research and commentary has been featured in Forbes, ComputerWeekly, PC Mag, TechRadar, ZDNet, The Mirror, ... View Full Bio
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