A JOURNEY INTO THE HIDDEN WEB
I first came across the hidden web a few months ago. Moving to a different country was a difficult transition for me at first, and through convenience, I found myself speaking to backup-friends behind a monitor more than I was with my new fellow residents. Slowly, in between watching back-to-back episodes of The Simpsons, accidentally overhearing my housemate have sex with her boyfriend and searching for recognisable foodstuffs in the local supermarket, my life revolved around my semi-functioning laptop. Living the ex-pat dream.
So, I decided with all my free time, that I was going to educate myself in a new topic, something that I wasn’t available to do when I had some semblance of a social life and work schedule. I had recently met a guy from America in a bar who told me he got kicked out of a prestigious private school for hacking. Of course I found it childishly cool. I’ve always harboured a covert interest in hacking, but frustration eventually took the fun out of it. A couple of nights later, I decided to give it another go. With dreams of incarnating some sexy throwback to a 90’s low-budget cyberpunk movie - with the added extra of possessing the powers to access my ex-boyfriend's Facebook account - I took a digital plunge.
As I was just getting my head around the overwhelming amount of computer related acronyms, I noticed a thread on a forum titled ‘Hidden Web’. I had heard about it many times before, but in the context of a sweeping conspiracy theory that people such as myself subscribe to but don’t bother to investigate. At first it shocked me a little to read that the hidden web was actually a real thing; The many forum users who obscured their identity with a meme of their choice and a name which, more times than not, included the word ‘anon’, even donated screenshots and descriptions to support their declarations.
After a while, I’d learnt that the hidden web can only be reachable by a browser called TOR (The Onion Router), which, originally developed by Naval intelligence, rallies a computer’s commands through a huge number of anonymous servers until it loses its traceability. Many of the 200,000 + sites on there use the infamous currency of BitCoin which has no money trail, making it attractive for transactions of a criminal nature. The web links are also off the beaten track, consisting of a random set of 16 letters ending in .onion instead of the familiar .com, .org et al. which aren’t picked up by regular search engines. In the midst of my educational enrichment, I was confronted with various warnings telling me to watch out for the copious amounts of child porn, human trafficking, hackers and weaponry sites that were readily available to click on, and above all, to make sure my computer security was very high. This was hardly online-dating/free-trail territory.
Still, ignorance and curiosity outweighed my logic and after downloading TOR, I opened the browser and there it began. It felt oddly like the pivotal moment in The Matrix where Neo is offered the two pills. Like him, I took the red one (probably a bit overdramatic but being home alone gave me a fickle sense of rationality). Anyway, I opened the browser and pasted in the random set of 16 letters I found on the forum, and waited for the page to reveal itself. No going back now, whatever I was about to see, to what extent it lived up to the forum’s hype, there was no way I’d be able to wash it from my memory; a memory once filled with the last remains of my innocence and animated anecdotes from Homer Simpson.
At first glance, I was pretty disappointed, albeit slightly relieved. The Hidden Wiki - the front door of the hidden web - is laid out in a slightly similar way to the familiar Wikipedia - the saviour of my Bachelors Degree - with black text on a white background. After looking a little closer, true to the tip-offs, I saw a variety of links leading to the darkest corners of a mind I’d like to think very different to my own. I swerved the ones with horrific titles and jumped straight into a link, which claimed to be ‘the best TOR library on the hidden web’. From there I hopscotched around from one site to the other, looking for an interesting blog, or a conspiracy theory network that I could immerse myself in. I probably didn’t look hard enough but I didn’t see much on that front, just a myriad of portholes leading to criminal activity. I decided to try a general forum instead called TriChan, and rattle a few brains there in search of some enlightenment.
In step with the movie analogies, at this point it was like I was in the restaurant scene of Being John Malkovich, but instead of everyone embodying the film’s eponymous has-been of a protagonist, they were instead this ‘anonymous’ character, reiterating each other about the joys of free information and child porn. I went ahead and asked the users where was good to go, and how many people were actually using the hidden web. I posted under the name Anonchick with the 90’s cyberpunk dream in full flow. Sadly, the dream ended there, as I got a response from a highly paranoid ‘anonymous’ asking me who I was working for, and whether I was affiliated with the police. Probably the first time in my life where I found it appropriate to type the cringe-worthy curated phrase 'LOL'.
Then it stopped seeming funny. I went back to the TOR library and decided to let go of the fussiness and just get stuck in allowing my curiosity to be my guide. First up I checked out some of the majorly hyped up sites on the hidden web: SilkRoad – an anonymous online black market specialising in drugs and stolen goods, The Human Experiment – a site I believe to be fake that claims to conduct really abhorrently unethical experiments on humans, and a couple of recommended forums and chat rooms. The content stared at me. I just couldn’t seem to create a criminal-free diversion. I know I was warned about this, but I wasn’t prepared for the intrusive epiphany that actual people created this content, and that I was a voyeur of their mentally ill thought processes. Although I was aware that half of the content could well just have been memoirs of a highly fanatical teenage recluse with dreams of living out his self-marginalised little life in attic of his mum’s house (well over the age of acceptability), I just couldn’t tell. All I knew is that it came from human beings, human beings that shared the same world as ours, with an imagination that outweighed their intention. The lack of differentiation between the real and the fake also began to infect my intelligence, leading me to question every bit of information I’d ever absorbed during my life.
A final blind eyed tour of the TOR library took me to various manuals of the same ill taste, ‘how to kidnap a child’, ‘how to commit suicide’ and ‘how to mass murder’ being just a few. It was there that my curiosity and faith in humanity saw its demise. The thought of such information being created by kids with no concept of consequence, influencing the impressionable outsider and exposing him/her to unthinkable ideas, was too upsetting to conquer. So, after the novelty expired and the anxiety attacks increased, I retired from my search. Considering the apparent fact that the hidden web is estimated to be around 450 times larger than the visible web, I imagine some will think of me as sounding slightly sanctimonious and over-generalising. I might not have seen enough, but I definitely saw too much.
With that said, I believe there will never be a fair review when it comes to discussing the hidden web. All I know is that with its alleyways darker than its streets are brighter, it’s hard to imagine freedom of information existing beyond the confinement of this unsearchable realm, and I can no longer subscribe to the pro side in the argument of anonymity without being fogged over by its many grey areas. It's sad to think that some users of the hidden web have bastardised the idea of free information and destroyed the very sanctity of what protects them. It leaves me with a lot of pondering: Are the sites I found myself on an accurate representation of what happens when we are given anonymity and a playground of unregulated content? Are we to excuse the negative and detrimental use (or rather misuse) of anonymity, for the benefits is has elsewhere? And will it ever be possible to reach a utopia of free information?
These are just some of the questions that shape our generation, which lean more towards anthropological discourse than they do to answers. The thing is, where opportunities are given, liberties can be taken, and the hidden web is certainly a key example of this notion in effect. It’s a bitter pill to swallow when remembering that the positive opportunities the hidden web offers is communication and knowledge to those in restricted countries where detection could lead to death; even more bitter when those who already had this privilege on the surface web seem to be the ones taking the liberties by using it to wank over pictures and buy knock-off narcotics.
I have revisited the Internet’s evil twin from time to time, if only to satisfy my inklings that I haven't potentially missed a ground-breaking wiki-leaks spin-off or even just the latest semi-naked ‘selfie’ from Amanda Bynes which strayed from her Twitter feed. Maybe those things are there (I can only hope - with equal affection for both), but alas I can’t vouch for that, and I have yet to meet or hear from anyone who can. I suppose only those who really can are those who have a reason to be down there. So, as the saying goes, curiosity kills the cat. Or in my case, curiosity leaves you pretty depressed, completely nihilistic, and definitely on the verge of an existential breakdown. From now on, I’ll just stick to The Simpsons.
WORDS: GEORGIA ALICE LITTLE