The dark web is hailed by privacy advocates and human rights activists for its ability to protect political dissidents and provide a platform for people looking to evade censorship and online surveillance. But the anonymity aspects mean it also attracts criminals, like convicted paedophile Gary Glitter.
The former glam rock star, whose real name is Paul Gadd, is back in prison after footage emerged of him asking questions about how to access the dark web. This was reportedly in breach of his probation conditions, having been released in February after serving eight years of a 16 year sentence for child sex offences.
“Shall I get rid of this duck duck?” he said, appearing to refer to the privacy-focussed search engine Duckduckgo, which is the default tool on the dark web. “Let’s try and find this onion,” he added, referencing the .onion URL’s found on the dark web.
Started by the US government in the 1990s, the dark web was originally used by intelligence agencies to protect their online communications. It uses a technology called onion routing, which sends encrypted online traffic through a global network of computers in order to disguise a user’s location and internet usage.
The bigger the network, the more effective the technology is, which is why the US government made it public. More than two decades later, it remains a small but significant section of the internet, but is only accessible through specialist software.
The most popular portal for accessing the dark web is Tor – originally an acronym for The Onion Router – which can be downloaded like any other web browser. It is free and legal to use, offering a way to communicate anonymously and privately access web addresses.
Many people use it legitimately, and it continues to be championed by human rights groups and privacy campaigners. Popular online platforms like Facebook and the BBC also host content on the dark web in order to allow people to use their services, even if they’re living in a country like China, where they are frequently banned.
Dark web expert Eileen Ormsby, who is the author of two books on the subject, has previously spoken about the technology’s popularity with paedophiles.
“Most of the child exploitation sites are behind registration walls, but it is possible to stumble upon it by clicking the wrong link occasionally,” she told The Independent in 2019.
“Child exploitation makes up a substantial amount of the dark web… The most disturbing is ‘hurtcore’. It’s a fetish for people who get aroused by the infliction of pain – or even torture – on another person… and it’s almost exclusively a subset of paedophile sites. It can be so sadistic that even most paedophiles are repulsed by it.”
The activities that take place on the dark web have elevated it to a near-mythical status in some corners of the internet, with some conspiracy theories centering on a secret section of the dark web referred to as the ‘Mariana’s Web’ or the ‘shadow web’.
“Many people believe there is a further, deeper, darker section of the dark web,” Ms Ormsby said. “Snuff movies, of course, and worse: gladiator fights to the death, a collection of psychopaths who play demented games of conkers, swinging babies by their ankles.”
Another notorious dark web myth is that of “red rooms”, where people allegedly pay to watch criminal acts like torture and rape. Hidden behind paywalls, it is impossible to verify them without potentially paying criminals, so there is no documented evidence that such places actually exist.