Perhaps the sketchiest parts of the net are just a few clicks away, on the regular ol' web.
You might think you know what the dark net is. It's all those sites that host drug markets, radical forums, child porn, and anything and everything else, and which can only be accessed by special software. Right?
That's a big part of it, but not the whole story. Just ask researcher and author Jamie Bartlett, whose new book, The Dark Net, delves into some of these questionable and under-explored spaces, and he'll tell you we should look wider—and closer to home—when we think about the dark net. Perhaps the darkest parts of the internet are just a few clicks away.
To many, the 'dark net' is a colloquial term for the sites beyond the reach of indexing search engines like Google. They are typically accessed through the Tor browser, which encrypts your internet traffic and recognises the .onion protocol, with the best known being the Silk Road marketplace.
Although some of these hidden sites come up in The Dark Net, they are not the sole focus of Bartlett's book. As he told me, "Facebook groups, anonymous Twitter accounts, pro-anorexia sites that anyone can join—these were as distressing and worrisome as anything else I found in some of the more secretive places."
More broadly, 'dark' refers to anonymity, or at least the perception of anonymity: being able to speak on the internet while others in the discussion have little to no idea who you are in real life. Bartlett set out to discover "the range of things that people do under the conditions of anonymity," he said. "I was interested to explore where that takes some people."
Instead of just documenting the inhabitants of these online spaces like a digital David Attenborough, Bartlett actually engages with them, and asks them deeply personal questions.
He spoke to committed trolls, pro-anorexia forum visitors, semi-professional cam girls, and more besides. Over the span of a year, he observed and interacted with the different subcultures that have found a haven on the internet.
Many of these might be perceived as seedy corners of the web. But Bartlett, who currently serves as the director of the Centre of the Analysis of Social Media at Demos, a British think tank, says that none of the forums he came across were straight-up, obviously immoral. Instead, he found that the communities were generally rather nuanced in their ethics.
"It's shades of grey," he told me over the phone. "It was far more morally ambiguous than I expected it to be: It was unclear where things were absolutely bad, or absolutely good."
It's shades of grey. It was unclear where things were absolutely bad, or absolutely good.
One example of what Bartlett explored as a 'dark' pursuit was trolling. Zack, a troll that he met, has been pissing people off on the net for over a decade, but although his past-time of intentionally annoying people may seem intuitively wrong, Bartlett found another side to his behaviour. "It's about pushing boundaries; it's about testing things out, often in quite creative ways," he explained.
To be clear, 'dark' in this context could also refer to the lack of research available on these sites and their users. "To me," Bartlett said, "'dark' also meant obscure; not well understood."
This is shown through another character in The Dark Net. We're told the story of Michael (not his real name), a man who started watching porn in his twenties, and then sporadically in his thirties before becoming a regular viewer. His preference, he told Bartlett, was for younger girls.
"I just find teenage girls more physically attractive than women my age," Michael admitted to Bartlett.
Slowly, over a long period of time, Michael started to click on porn that was exhibiting girls of a younger and younger age. Eventually, he was viewing more porn in the category of 'jailbait,' a term that refers to borderline illegality. At some point, Michael went even further.
"I can't tell you precisely when it happened," he says in the book, "although I absolutely accept there was a point when I did cross a line." Michael was recently convicted of possessing nearly 3,000 indecent images of children.
This story is a rare insight into a part of the 'dark net' that we don't usually talk about, and offers a glimpse of how a pedophilia habit might develop. After all, the parts of the internet Bartlett explored are distinctly human spaces. They contain, "all of the different human emotions, and human behaviours, and human urges," he told me.
"Some of them, many of them, are quite dark: the desire to control, the desire to bully, the desire to view taboo material, the desire be racist towards other groups," Bartlett said. "The reality is, that is part of the human makeup."
Bartlett's research suggests that it may be time to address these aspects of the internet, and the parts of ourselves that they mirror. "It's better to understand it and look at it square in the face, rather than pretending it doesn't exist," Bartlett said. "The dark side of human nature is an important part of who we are."