What Is the Dark Web and Why Do People Use It?

Dark web users want anonymity

Laptop computer closeup; fingers in shadows



The dark web is part of the internet where web pages exist on networks that require special software for access. People use the dark web to remain anonymous or untraceable.

You won't find dark web pages returned in your search engine results, and a lot of misinformation is floating around regarding what the dark web really is, how it works, and if it's safe.

Even if you personally never go there, you should know about accessing the dark web and why some people want to visit this somewhat mysterious destination.

Layers of the Web

Young hooded woman hacker doing cyber attack
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Before you can fully understand what the dark web is, you need to first understand some related terminology.

  • Surface web: This is the web that you know. It's where you are now. You can enter a search term into a common search engine like Google or Bing and receive results that point you to pages that should be of interest based on your search terms. It's like the top, visible layer of the web, and is sometimes called the Clearnet (it's unencrypted).
  • Deep web: The deep web/invisible web is made up of all manner of information that cannot be indexed/searched by familiar search engines. For example, this could be financial information that's stored online, a database of scientific knowledge, or even medical or legal records that are stored on the internet, but that block search engines from including their information in search results. However, anybody can search the deep web with invisible web search tools.
  • Dark web: The dark web is a small part of the deep web but is more mysterious; you need a specialized browser to access it. That browser lets you go to pages using a specialized protocol that your normal web browser doesn't navigate. It takes a bit more computer knowledge to find your way into and around the dark web, which is generally a collection of mostly illegal information, products, and services that don't hold interest for the average user.

    Deep web and dark web are often conflated, which can be confusing when reading about these terms. If it helps, consider the various layers of the web as a body of water: anyone can access the surface no problem, and you need special tools to go deeper where interesting things might live, but to reach the bottom requires a totally different vessel because it's too dark to see that far.

    Another term used in relation to the dark web is dark net, but that's really just an umbrella term to describe parts of the internet that are hidden and closed off from the public (which includes the dark web).

    Tools for Accessing the Dark Web

    To use the dark web, you need to download special browser clients, the most popular of which is Tor.

    These tools do two things: connect users to the subset of networks that make up the dark web and anonymize every step by encrypting where you are, where you're coming from, and what you’re doing. You become anonymous, which is one of the most alluring aspects of the dark web.

    Downloading Tor or other anonymizing browser clients doesn't imply that the user is engaging in any sort of illegal activity; on the contrary, many people are finding these tools useful as concerns about web privacy grow.

    Once you've downloaded and installed Tor, your browsing is made anonymous, which is crucial for visiting any part of the dark web. However, instead of accessing just regular websites that end in .com or .org, you now have access to special .onion URLs.

    Facebook on the onion tor network

    Onion sites look just like regular web pages, the only difference being how you access them. The Hidden Wiki is a great place to start if you're new to using the dark web, but you can also find places to visit through .onion catalogs and dark web search engines like Torify.me, OnionLink, not Evil, and TORCH.

    Using the dark web may not be quite as anonymous as you may hope, especially if you're not a sophisticated user. You aren't completely untraceable. In fact, people are caught engaging in illegal stuff on the dark web. Using these tools makes you much more difficult to track, but not impossible.

    Although downloading these encryption tools and clients is definitely not illegal, using them sends up red flags about you. People who end up breaking the law often start here, so law enforcement finds value in keeping track of these initial uses.

    Dark Web Uses

    The dark web has somewhat of an unsavory reputation. Its offer of anonymity is definitely a huge draw for people who want their activities sealed away from the public eye, like to trade pornography; procure drugs, weapons, bank account details, hacked user accounts, passwords, hacking software, counterfeit money, and other illicit items; and even engage in contract murders.

    One example of places on the dark web that aren't entirely legal was the "storefront" referred to as the Silk Road. The Silk Road was a large marketplace within the dark web, infamous for the buying and selling of illegal narcotics, but also a wide variety of illicit goods and information.

    These goods could only be purchased using bitcoins, a virtual currency that functions independently of governmental monetary systems and can be transferred anonymously through networks that make up the dark web. 

    The Silk Road was shut down in 2013. After an investigation, its founder, Ross Ulbricht, was sentenced to life in prison without parole. According to some sources, over $1 billion in goods were sold there before it was taken offline.

    Noncriminal Use of the Dark Web

    If not for illegal use, why else would someone access the dark web? Some people have a legitimate need to remain anonymous because their lives may be in danger or the information they possess is sensitive or even volatile. Journalists have been known to use the dark web to contact sources anonymously or as a place to store sensitive documents.

    The dark web has also been a safe haven of sorts for people who need to share information without detection — perhaps from an authoritarian regime.

    Some other safe things to do on the dark web include join a social media site (even Facebook), play games, read news, share files, send emails, etc.

    If you're on the dark web, you’re most likely there because you don’t want anyone to know what you’re doing or where you are, and you have taken very specific steps to make that a reality.