Is scaremongering about the so-called “dark web” obscuring an overdue debate about privacy? Joshua Lachkovic says that 2012 really will be the year that personal data concerns hit the big time.
It seems at the beginning of every year, some journalist or blogger boldly states: “this is the year that online privacy will die”. I’ve heard it every year for the past half-decade. I know for a fact I’ve said it on multiple occasions: last year, as social media influence tools seemed to become a little more popular and as the Newzbin-blocking story ran, I blogged about the end of online privacy and online freedom.
It’s the job of civil liberties, privacy and freedom campaigners, to warn us against possible worst-case scenarios. A few hours of searching one day about a potentially embarrassing subject becomes infuriating when you realise Facebook is now targeting ads at you related to it. If it wasn’t enough that Betfair lost the credit card details of millions of its users in a massive breach of privacy, the fact that they hid it from their customers for over eighteen months should make those with even the most laissez-faire of attitudes to personal data quite uncomfortable.
But as the debate continues to rage among privacy campaigners, you might feel that the average internet user doesn’t care. After all, when was the last time you overheard someone moaning about cookies in the Post Office queue? Many would not consider it in their interests to read the latest Facebook privacy update. (Presumably, they also value their sanity.) Nor would they consider it necessary to read Google’s latest update, which, to Google’s credit, is almost unavoidable on any part of the Google network.
Perhaps that’s why, when I’ve had conversations with non-political and non-techie friends about online privacy or freedom, the chances are they’ve walked away thinking I’m a Big Brother alarmist nut.
It’s true this time
So why is 2012 any different? Well, to begin with, we must look at SOPA and PIPA, which, to be honest, surprised me. Not the bills themselves – I’d expect that from any authoritarian politician (ie, most of them) – but the ferocity of the online backlash.
The efforts of Wikipedia, Reddit (even if the power has somewhat got to their heads) and even this magazine shocked me, because it made a difference. SOPA and PIPA have been shelved; the online community can breathe a sigh of relief, even if only a temporary one.
And the online black-out opened many people’s eyes to the obvious problems of banning personal freedom.
So the concepts of digital privacy are certainly beginning to reach the mainstream.
Last July, Gawker ran a piece on The Silk Road. This online black market, accessible only through the anonymised TOR network, provides you with a virtual hot-spot to buy any drug, weapon or illegal service you care to mention. As I blogged at the time, The Silk Road gained such notoriety that Senator Schumer (Dem) announced his intention to shut the site down, and so another battle between freedom-loving libertarians and protectionist, authoritarian politicians began.
With SOPA and PIPA, the DEA and general online privacy receiving a renewed interest of late, the BBC has launched a documentary on The Silk Road.
5 Live Investigates interviewed one of The Silk Road’s users and bought DMT, the hallucinogenic powder, online, to test the site’s legitimacy – or, as they put it, to prove that “the dark web works”.
The “dark web” is typical of the sorts of terminology the mainstream media likes to latch onto. When Channel 4 launched their mini-report into The Silk Road last September, they too used the expression “dark web,” and were sure to point out the availability of drugs, weaponry and paedophilic material that was accessible there. During an interview, Detective Superintendant Charlie McMurdie called it a “real enabler that facilitates loads of other types of criminality”.
Googling the “dark web”
A search for “dark web” shows results primarily from one of three periods: 2001, when the Wikipedia “Dark Internet” page linked to a series of articles and blogs published in that year; 2009, when the Guardian and a series of reactionary blogs posted about the “dark web”, in reference to TOR; and 2011-12, which included a recent BBC story and last year’s Channel 4 coverage, both of which direct their attention to The Silk Road, TOR (without mentioning it explicitly) and the illegal implications of the dreaded “dark web”.
Most of the mainstream reporting is, as you would expect, pretty thin on detail, balance or history, but Andy Beckett’s feature for the Guardian from 2009 is particularly noteworthy. Beckett examines the history of Freenet, the reports from the early 2000s (that Wikipedia references) on the sheer volume of deep web material, and TOR, long before the BBC or Channel 4 had ever heard of it.
In the feature, Beckett quotes Craig Labovitz, chief scientist at Arbor Networks, who conducted the 2001 research that found “up to five per cent of the net is completely unreachable”. In Beckett’s feature, Labovitz says, “In 2000, dark and murky address space was a bit of a novelty. This is now an entrenched part of the daily life of the internet.”
Desire for change
In 2009, Beckett looked at an internet that “for all its anarchy, is becoming steadily more commercialised.” He described the internet as being set in a “Gold Rush” phase that, for the most part – despite the odd person running an anonymised site – was very much in the commercial mainstream.
Beckett was right in 2009, but this is not to say he is right now. In 2009, Facebook had just 175 million users. Twitter had just 11.5 million. Facebook now has around 800 million users and Twitter over 100 million. The way we use social media and the way we use the internet has changed dramatically.
Privacy will, if it hasn’t already, become a higher priority for the average internet user, and I am willing to stick my neck out and say it will all come to a head this year.
Big Brother Watch called Facebook’s IPO “Five Billion Dollars of Personal Information” and it is thinking like this that will start to turn heads among the general public. A lot has changed since 2009, and while the commercialisation of the internet continues to expand, it will be met with an ever-growing privacy backlash.
The numbers of those who search for more anonymised browsing, more secure sites and a more private experience, will increase. The mainstream media do themselves a disservice by examining those private spheres only in their most negative contexts.
What networks like TOR should show us is that there is an increasing number of people who want the freedom that the internet once afforded, away from the prying eyes of Facebook’s persistent snooping.
As with all things online, the more you try to ban or block something, the greater, more calculated and more fragmented it will become. This year, privacy and online freedom will no longer be the code words of a sceptic few, but instead the scales upon which debate will be weighed.