When the internet started, there were no homes connected to it. If you wanted to use email, and no one who didn’t already have email even knew what email was, you had to have an account on a computer at a research center like MIT. If you did, you could send email to others who had an account, you could transfer files from one computer to another (with FTP, file transfer protocol) and you could remotely log into another machine with telnet. And, there were news groups which were text-based lists of articles, called postings, of various topics such as food, humor, sex, etc.
Fast forward thirty years to today and that limited research network is now a global network connecting users across the globe to one another. Anyone with a cell-phone can connect to anyone else. You don’t need an account on a school computer, your identity can be hidden (although not necessarily your internet protocol (IP) address) and you can access websites, forums, email, chats, etc. So, what’s life like on this new, global network?
The internet, of course, is filled with good things like news, email, social software, and, as you know, shopping on Amazon or eBay. But for Jamie Bartlett, the internet has a dark side filled with illegal activities and socially unacceptable sites packed with people who pay for the privilege to be part of a sex show.
We begin this unseemly trip with Sara, a college student who thinks her computer offers some sort of anonymity, but it doesn’t. She puts on a striptease in front of her webcam on a public site and chats with viewers. She goes so far as to write her name on her naked body. Before she’s done entertaining (she’s not being paid) some of the viewers have “doxed” her: they find her real name, raid her Facebook account, send her nude photos to her friends and family, and essentially disrupt (maybe ruin) her life in the span of a just a few minutes. It’s a horrific description of an innocent girl’s demise written so graphically as to make you pity her naiveté and abhor the evil of these viewers who can’t resist shaming her.
I was pleased to find usenet newsgroups are still around but then shocked to realize how misused they are on the dark net. The group alt.suicide.holiday makes its appearance where people openly discuss their desire to kill themselves. Suicide is a sickness and one might think, just maybe, this newsgroup would somehow help the mentally ill to avoid suicide and find help. No such luck. Mr. Bartlett introduces us to “Cami” who encourages Nadia, a 19-year old Canadian girl, to kill herself. Reading the dialogue one would think Cami is a kindred spirit and needs help, too. But we soon learn Cami is not a girl, not suicidal, and has no interest in helping Nadia. Rather, Cami is a middle-aged man, a nurse, husband, and father who has spent years encouraging distraught girls to kill themselves. He thinks five actually did. On the web, there are dangerous people.
If you want to purchase illegal goods like drugs or guns you’ll find them on the Silk Road. This is a site that only exists via the TOR router (The Onion Router, developed by the Navy) so users are almost impossible to trace and anonymity is all but ensured. The first Silk Road was run by Ross Ulbricht until he was arrested by the FBI on October 1, 2013. Ulbricht managed the site for a small fee amounting over time to $150 million in Bitcoins, the currency of choice for no traceability. There is now a Silk Road 2 showing that markets will spring to serve customers no matter what the merchandise.
For the sex-side to this dark net we meet Vex who works on the Chaturbate site. Viewers can find sex shows with Vex and maybe a friend or two of hers will join in. She makes money from the shows and fans can tip her with Bitcoins. The site monitors who tips and how much so the bigger the tipper the more his (and most viewers are men) suggestions the models may perform. Some fans are quite fond of the various models and buy them gifts from the model’s Amazon wish list.
The dark web exists, is easy to access, and contains things unavailable elsewhere. It’s a model of free enterprise, marketing, and business without regulation. For those interested in what happens when there are few rules, Bartlett has a written a fine guide to this side of the internet.