The dark web—the portion of the deep web only accessible through specific software—exists to serve the needs of hackers-for-hire, hitmen, internet drug kingpins, child pornographers, and their inevitable customers. That’s the public consensus.
Then there’s the counter-narrative. In spite of them ne’er-do-wells, .onion sites are invaluable for whistleblowers, activists, and regular citizens sick of having their personal information logged and stored by corporations that control an increasingly monopolized internet.
And then there’s the reality: in practice, the dark web mostly resembles the internet of 20 years ago.
The sites which don’t actively work to circumvent laws (oppressive or totally sensible) tend to lack any sort of function at all. A single word on a blank page. A stupid gif with autoplaying sound, an annoying trend that mostly died with Myspace. These sites don’t even serve the purpose of domain squatting, as most onion urls intentionally defy memorability. In some ways, its refreshing to see pages that completely lack both interactivity and agenda—amateurish graffiti scrawled against a digital landscape that’s purpose-built to be undiscoverable by the overwhelming majority of people. But for the relatively small onion community, perhaps they have a message.
Because Tor (the software that allows communication with .onion sites) bounces requests between a slew of nodes to make data requests harder to trace, every user action takes an eternity. Pages hang. Gifs load at a crawl. Forget streaming video—it’s not going to happen. In terms of speed and capabilities, the deep web is a throwback to the dial-up days.
The other thing to remember is that the dark web is fractionally small. Where The Atlantic estimated the number of websites on the surface web at nearly 1 billion last year, even the larger .onion indexes barely crack a few thousand, many of which are often down.
Look past the phishing links, fake bitcoin laundering services, and drug markets and what remains of the deep web is largely bizarre, single-serve pages. Remember the garbage kids were making in Learn Basic HTML classes or on Angelfire? That’s exactly what military-grade web security is being used for.
Some are online confessionals that the authors may or may not have wanted other people to find.
Others appear to be puzzles or the ramblings of conspiracy theorists.
Mostly, pages are half-finished, abandoned, or pointless, featuring a single word or gif. Junk pages exist on the more readily accessible parts of the clearweb too, but by virtue of scale (and filtering tools) they’re pushed so far down on search results that few people ever see them anymore.
With fairly reliable digital anonymity at the disposal of anyone willing to download Tor or similar browsers—and with obsessive sharing habits stripped away—most people seem confused on what to do with it. There’s still the chance for the dark web to become a haven for new forms of online experimentation and net art, but for now there’s mostly a whole lot of trash.
Correction 09/21/16 12:21pm EST: An earlier version referred to the dark web as the “deep web” which is somewhere between incomplete and inaccurate. The error has been amended.