If you watched a single procedural TV series recently, they definitely featured at least a single internet-heavy episode. Aside from questionable keyboard use, they will have thrown around terms like “deep web” or “dark web.” Those are not some made-up hacker terms to confuse the audience – those are actually real things! And we’re here to tell you about it.
In short: What are the deep web and dark web?
The deep web is all the websites not indexed by reach engines (read: unsearchable by google) and usually used for mundane utility tasks. The dark web is very intentionally obscured parts of the deep web that you’ll need at least a different browser to access.
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Is the deep web the same as the dark web?
No, not at all. The deep web, being a part of the internet not reachable via search engines but still accessible with the right URL address and logins, is not as hidden as the dark web. The dark web, on the other hand, is like a subcategory in the deep web, where it is very intentionally obfuscated and hard to reach. We go into more detail later.
What is the deep web?
The deep web refers to the unseen utility spaces of the real internet. Any website that can be indexed by a search engine (and thus searched on Google or even Bing) belongs to the “surface web” – the public internet that is there for you to find and use. Imagine it like the storefronts at a mall – sure, some of them might be dingy or out of the way, but they’re there for you to find.
In this metaphor, the deep web would be all the back rooms, maintenance tunnels, storage areas, administration offices, and other spots not meant to be accessible to the public. Sure, you can get in there if you have the pass, know the door code, and so on.
If you can’t find it on Google (search engines never point directly to your email inbox), but can be accessed by knowing a link and a password, it’s in the deep web. Outside of the metaphor, the deep web contains:
- Private social media profiles
- The inside of your bank account
- Email inboxes
- Confidential corporate web pages
- Internal company and school systems
- Paywalled content
- And so on and so forth etc.
The biggest difference between the deep web and deep-web-as-the-mall-liminal-space-metaphor, is that most of a mall is customer-facing and not just utility spaces. Meanwhile, the deep web is massively larger than the surface web.
Fun fact: The internet is considered to be 90-95% deep web.
Think about how many people will see the Gmail login screen (on the clear net) and how many individual Gmail accounts there (on the deep web). Now apply that logic to everything else, and you can start to grasp the difference in scale.
What is the dark web?
Going back to the mall metaphor, where the surface web is the storefronts and the deep web is all the maintenance areas, the dark web is like an illegal gambling den in a walled-off closet (that does not exist in the mall blueprint) behind a Wendy’s that can only be accessed by unscrewing six bolts on a ventilation shaft. By which I mean that it’s very well hidden, requires special means to access, and is very likely illegal.
A necessary component of the dark web that you have most likely heard of is the Tor Network, which hosts .onion websites that require having the Tor Browser to access. That’s right, not only is the dark web not accessible via search engines, it’s not even enough to have a link and password, there can be near-physical barriers to entry. It is very intentionally hidden.
All this secrecy is important because the dark web contains:
- Crime. Dark web marketplaces – like Silk Road – for guns, drugs, and whatever other stuff a bored cop doing an entrapment is willing to come up with are probably the most well-known feature of this network.
- Copyrighted books. Tor and such don’t have the speed to run pirated game and movie sharing, but it’s still enough for sharing scanned books outside of the reach of DMCA-armed publishers.
- Drop sites for whistleblowers. Whistleblowing is dangerous even when there’s no law against it, and dropping some incriminating evidence of corporate wrongdoings and NATO war crimes is something best done as securely as possible.
- Dark web versions of mainstream news sites. This is one way to get the news very securely. Very important in oppressive states since they’d have a hard time blocking access to it (though Tor usage can be detected by ISPs).
- Dark web forums. Of course, the nature of the medium means that subjects might quickly turn criminal. While some spaces act close to your regular forums, you don’t go through all the trouble of accessing the dark web to complain about the newest Pokemon release.
- Weird blogs. Maybe you’re just someone who has a dark web blog for novelty reasons, or maybe there’s a deeper reason for it. For example, tech enthusiasts made blogs dedicated to such questionably-legal things as exploring university maintenance tunnels.
Dark web search engines exist, but due to the nature of the places (websites go down constantly), they are not even close to approaching the usability of, say, Bing.
Due to the fluid and unofficial nature of the dark web, nobody knows how big it is. Incidentally, the publicly accessible internet – surface and deep webs put together – are collectively called “clearnet” as opposed to the very much hidden dark web.
Is the deep web illegal?
The deep web isn’t illegal, as the internet could hardly function without it. Remember the scale difference between clear net and deep web. Remember the mundane utility tasks it serves. Yep, the deep web is both legal and even morally right or neutral.
Is the dark web illegal?
The dark web is not, as a concept, illegal – else I wouldn’t have written that blog post about fun Tor websites. However, like with every tool on the internet – even VPNs – it is still illegal to do illegal stuff on it.
If you use your perfectly legal Chrome browser to stream pirated movies, you’re engaging in an illegal activity. If you go on a dark website to hire a hitman on your neighbor who has a limited edition Charizard card, that is illegal.
What are the main dangers of the dark web?
The dark web can’t hurt you by just existing, but there are some dangers associated with its use:
- Breaking the law. Depending on the local law, just viewing some of the stuff on the dark web can lead to charges that start with “possession of…” On the other hand, seeing how difficult the dark web is to navigate, you are very unlikely to just chance upon those things, so you’re probably aware of what you’re getting into.
- Psychological damage. Your morbid curiosity can lead you to finding stuff more baleful than what you can see on Liveleak.
- Viruses. You know how freely shared pirated media can come with viruses and other treats? The same thing applies to the dark web!
- Scams. Even clearnet has websites designed to scam you out of your money or data, or infect your device.
So to recap, don’t go looking for anything illegal and keep your cybersecurity habits on point, and you should be fine.
Security is important no matter the web you use
Deep web vs dark web: they’re not the same, but they’re all parts of the internet. Some of it you see daily, some you’ll never find unless you go specifically looking for them. But whatever happens, the important thing is to stay safe online. Get a VPN.