What Is The Dark Web And How Does It Work?

The dark web is a hidden portion of the internet that may only be accessed using a specific browser. It's used to conceal online activities, which might be beneficial in both legal and unlawful circumstances. While some people utilize it to bypass government prohibitions, others have been discovered to engage in extremely illegal acts. Want to know more about this? Then read our in-depth guide explaining everything about this topic.

Ben Grindlow

Ben Grindlow is the founder of ProXPN, a company that provides reviews about VPN products and services. Ben's interest in cybersecurity and privacy led him to start ProXPN, which has become one of the most well-respected VPN providers in the world. Ben is passionate about his work, and he is constantly exploring new ways to improve ProXPN's in-depth guides.

Last updated: 10:10AM 7/5/2022

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Table of Contents

This is your complete guide to the dark web, its pros and cons, and the weird and wonderful content — including criminal activity — you may encounter on dark websites.

This article will explain:

  • What the dark web is and what you can find there
  • Who legitimately uses the dark web
  • Whether the dark web is dangerous or illegal
  • Safe ways to get on the dark web

Read on now to find out more about the dark web.

What is the dark web?

The dark web, sometimes also called the ‘darknet’, is a part of the worldwide web that is invisible to search engines like Google and Bing. It is a small collection of anonymous and encrypted websites that you cannot access through your normal browser.

The dark web has virtually no surveillance or censorship. It offers ultimate freedom … and ultimate peril.

The dark web or the deep web?

Strictly speaking, the dark web is just a small part of the deep web. Both involve sites that are not indexed by regular search engines. The deep web can only be reached via a direct URL or IP address using the correct login details.

The deep web refers to sites containing content that requires login credentials for most people to access. What lives on the deep web includes:

  • The contents of your Gmail account
  • Your accounts on Dropbox, iCloud or Google Drive
  • Online bank accounts and similar sensitive information
  • Stored medical records
  • Academic and other private databases

The deep web is 400 to 550 times larger than the public (surface) web. About 96 to 99% percent of the total internet consists of the deep web.

While the dark web refers to the more free-wheeling and/or illegal side of the internet (stolen data, hidden sites, criminal activity and other dark web content), the deep web refers to often legitimate and lawful content that is intentionally kept separate.

What we normally see on the web is just the tip of the iceberg. The part of the iceberg below the surface — the deep web and the dark web — is usually not visible to the rest of the world.

The dark web vs. the surface web

This table lists some differences between the dark web and the ‘normal’ surface web that everyone uses every day.

Surface web Dark web

  • Used daily by billions of users
  • Used by a relatively small number of people
  • Approximately 1.7 billion websites
  • An unknown number of sites
  • Not indexed by search engines
  • Deliberately shielded and only accessible  via special TOR browsers

Why do people use the dark web?

With its lack of rules and enhanced anonymity, the dark web understandably attracts outlaws and criminals. Illegal activity can take place on the dark web, including things like:

  • Trafficking in drugs or weapons
  • Selling false identities and leaked data
  • Spreading malware, illegal content or child pornography

The dark web even trades in human organs, which is enough to give most people the shivers.

Still, you should bear in mind that the majority of cybercrime in the world is committed on the surface web!

Despite the fearsome image commonly surrounding the dark web, this shadowy place also boasts some positive aspects.

  • Free speech is freer there. Whistleblowers, journalists and human rights activists can use the dark web to tell their stories or disclose sensitive information.
  • Citizens located in countries under censorship can communicate with others through the dark web. These people can access data and messaging on the dark web that would otherwise not be available to them. This includes political dissidents and others who understandably prefer to remain anonymous.

The dark web serves its purpose thanks to its freedom and anonymity. Whistleblowers, journalists and activists can communicate freely with each other and share important information on the dark web.

The dark net is available to anyone with an internet connection and a special type of internet browser.

Search engines, dark web marketplaces, and other dark web tools

All manner of dark websites exist on the wilder side of the world wide web. These include:

  • Dark web commerce sites where illegal trade takes place in drugs, hacked accounts, porn, software or stolen goods.
  • Large media libraries offering e-books, movies, TV series and music
  • Anonymous, secure email services
  • Social networks and forums
  • Dark web news sites
  • Search engines to help you find dark web sites

Is the dark web illegal?

Visiting the dark web is not prohibited or illegal in most countries. Using the TOR browser, however — which you need to do in order to access the dark web — is prohibited in some authoritarian regimes like Iran.

Of the utmost importance is being mindful of your activities on the dark web. You are always subject to local laws, and if you access the dark web, nothing changes in the law.

For example, it is still against the law to buy drugs or purchase illicit goods on the dark web. You could do it, just as you could go to a perilous street corner in real life to buy illegal drugs — but it is against the law all the same, and you risk getting yourself in trouble with law enforcement officials.

Is the dark web dangerous?

Yes, the dark web can be dangerous. It is especially hazardous if you don't understand it well and don't know what you're doing. It is fairly easy to end up on illegal or unsafe dark web sites. Relatively speaking, many criminals and hackers are active on dark websites. There is also a lot of malware (malicious software) around the dark web. Exercise ultimate caution on dark web commerce sites.

Get the facts and stay safe

If you want to explore the dark net, be sure to install and use a VPN for increased security and privacy. But the most important thing is that you yourself should understand what you are doing and what you are clicking on. Be careful!

3 steps to safe dark web browsing

But how can you be safe on the dark web? What should and shouldn't you do there?

Start by following these 3 steps:

1. Get throughly prepared

Before you go on the dark web:

  • Make sure you have an active VPN connection.
  • Install a good virus scanner.
  • Do some research on how the dark web works and what you'll find there.
  • Decide in advance what you want to see or achieve on the dark web.
  • Always be cautious of dark web links.

Ideally, you would also use a public computer for extra anonymity when visiting a dark web site.

2. Download and install a dark web browser

You need a special browser to access the dark web. A popular and functional program that can be used for this is called TOR (The Onion Router). This web browser anonymizes the internet traffic on dark web sites, so that your identity remains as protected as possible.

Interestingly, TOR is largely sponsored by the US government.

When you visit dark web sites using TOR, your request is redirected through a series of different, random computers. Each computer has a part of the key to decipher your request, but no one computer has the whole key.

You can easily download and install the TOR browser yourself to surf dark web sites.

Safety first

Before accessing any dark web sites, be sure to set up everything correctly:

  • Make sure you connect to a VPN server first and then start the Tor dark web browser.
  • Set the security to the most secure level and make sure that no scripts can be run.
  • Again, always be careful what you click on.

3. Navigate

You should know that searching and navigating the dark web is not easy and involves risks. Caution is always important when you access the dark web.

The Hidden Wiki is a good home page for surfing the dark web. This site contains a collection of links to many other .onion websites.

Note that the Hidden Wiki can only be accessed on a TOR browser. Also keep in mind that:

  • There is no filter in the TOR browser. Before you know it, you've clicked on something you'd rather not see or something that is illegal. Or you might accidentally download a virus. Always pay close attention to what you are doing.
  • TOR is not just for the dark web. You can also visit websites on the regular web with a TOR browser.

Frequently asked questions

The dark web is a part of the internet that requires special software in order to access it. These sites are not indexed by search engines to maintain anonymity. Data theft occurs, data is traded, and usage is made for commercial, political, or personal gain.

Due to the multiple layers of encryption, darknet users' identities and locations are unknown. Users' information is encrypted through a vast number of intermediate servers utilizing darknet encryption technology, ensuring anonymity.

It's also worth noting that, while some activities on the dark web are certainly illegal, others aren't. In fact, certain uses of the “dark web” are completely legal and contribute to its value. Users can gain three distinct advantages from using the dark web: user anonymity, virtually untraceable services, sites, and so on.

The dark web began in 2000, when Ian Clarke, a University of Edinburgh student working on his thesis project, released Freenet, which aimed to be a “Distributed Decentralized Information Storage and Retrieval System.” To communicate and share files online anonymously, Clarke aimed to develop a new method.

The dark internet was created to provide anonymity by encrypting and routing online content through numerous web servers. That's where the “dark” element comes in: accessing the dark web necessitates the use of special software that protects your privacy.

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