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Ever since its release, the Onion Router (Tor), a free-to-download web browsing software, has been under scrutiny by governments, activists, and people around the world. Tor browser was recently brought into the public eye due to the vile online controversies caused by a few Tor users. Thus, the media painted the software as being a terrifying and malicious gateway into a hidden part of the internet, where depraved hackers, criminals, and degenerates skulk about. Despite popular belief, Tor software is not inherently evil, as it provides and promotes basic human rights online - including freedom of speech, privacy, security, and anonymity.
Lead by Roger Dingledine, a computer scientist, Tor software began development in 2002 under a contract from the United States Naval Research Laboratory.
Tor browser was produced by the a group known as the Tor Project, a nonprofit organization based in Massachusetts. Along with them, about 6,000 volunteers worldwide maintain and operate the Tor network today. The Tor Project’s goal is, “To advance human rights and freedoms by creating and deploying free and open anonymity and privacy technologies, supporting their unrestricted availability and use, and furthering their scientific and popular understanding” (Tor Project). Over the years, the Tor Project has received dozens of sponsorships and endorsements from various people, companies, and organizations - including Google Inc. itself.
The most unnerving part about Tor browser is that it allows users to access the deep web. The deep web is, “the portion of the internet that is hidden from conventional search engines, as by encryption; the aggregate of unindexed websites” (Solomon). Essentially, the deep web includes websites that cannot be searched for in a regular browser, like Chrome or Firefox - for, pages that you have to log into to see (i.e. one’s email inbox). However, the malicious content that the media sensationalizes inhabits the dark web, which is “intentionally hidden from search engines, uses masked IP addresses, and is accessible only with a special web browser” (Solomon). In simpler terms, the dark web is a part of the deep web, but as the name suggests, it is home to a much more sinister purpose.
For example, Tor software hosts what are known as “Tor Hidden Services.” Essentially, the Hidden Service protocol allows online services - such as instant messaging or web publishing - to be paid for and carried out anonymously. The service and its operators have no knowledge about their individual clients, and vice versa, therefore neither party can be tracked or identified by the other. The most wicked and strange services are found on the dark web, including the most famous case involving a foul service: the Silk Road Marketplace.
The Silk Road, an online drug market and Tor hidden service, was founded in February 2011. Products were put up for sale by vendors and organized by their type - stimulants, psychedelics, prescription, precursors, other, opioids, ecstasy, dissociative's, and steroids. In March of 2013, 70 percent of the 10,000 total listings were drugs - other sales included fake driver's licenses and similar items (Ball). The Silk Road did draw a line, however, and banned the sale of child pornography, volunteer hitmen-for-hire, stolen credit card information, and weapons. Once paid for, purchases would be mailed and delivered to the clients’ doorsteps in very discreet packaging.
The service was managed by Ross Ulbricht, who went by the name "Dread Pirate Roberts” online. He was known for “espousing libertarian ideals and criticizing regulation,” (Anderson) and was arrested and charged for various crimes. Finally, in May 2013, the Silk Road was shut down with DDoS attack by the FBI (Jeffries). No one knows for sure how this was done or how the FBI found the site’s IP address to begin with, as the tactics and methods they claimed to have used in order to accomplish it are highly unlikely and unanimously rejected by the public (“Silk Road Lawyers”). This chain of events sparked a wildfire of controversy that quickly spread through news outlets worldwide. The media hyperbolized the situation, creating a negative stigma surrounding the deep web and Tor browser that still exists today.
Despite how terrifying the deep web may sound, criminal activity is a very, very small part of it. Banal content, such as web pages you can only access via login, take up a large majority of the deep web. The dark web, where the most shady hidden services take place, only houses 5,205 hidden service websites, 2,723 of which are active, and only 1,547 are considered “illicit.” The majority of illicit service websites were related to drugs (423 total sites), but “illicit” refers also to morally or ethically questionable activities, not just illegal ones, so the variety of services is huge (Moore). Other alleged hidden services are used for human trafficking, but legitimate sites that actually sell people are very rare - most of them claim to, as a scam to get money from potential buyers. ‘“The dark web, as it's known, is not somewhere that we pick up a lot of stuff from," an (unnamed for security reasons) tactical advisor from the National Crime Agency’s UK Human Trafficking Centre (UKHTC) said. He said the UKHTC has seen similar sites, selling male and female slaves, sometimes for sex work, on [surface websites]...the trading of people online is not new. Social networks...have been used to facilitate human trafficking for years” (Cox). It is a myth that the deep web is completely evil, in fact, the process that Tor software uses, also known as onion routing, was “originally developed with the U.S. Navy in mind, for the primary purpose of protecting government communications” (Eddy). Today, Tor is utilized by law enforcement officers, normal people, journalists, the military, activists, and countless others. Just because some of the content accessible via Tor browser is evil or bad, does not mean Tor browser and its operators are evil or bad.
Tor browser may be be shrouded in controversy, but in fact, its benefits often outweigh the negatives It has many wonderful uses: the US government and military use it for security, journalists/investigators use it for dropping sensitive information, companies use it for secure business transactions/investments, normal people use it to increase their safety online, and so on. Perhaps one of the best things about Tor browser it that it grants people living in a strictly government-regulated countries a voice and freedom of speech without risk. A prime example of such as place is China, famous for what is known as “the great firewall,” or their government-censored internet. This heavy censorship creates a place where “ignorance fosters ideologies of hatred and aggression...China will eventually revert to what it once was: a sealed off, narrow-minded, belligerent, rogue state” (Xuecun). People can avoid this censorship and access government-blocked websites to seek truth. A notable occurrence of this phenomenon took place in Bangladesh, in November of 2015. Many internet communication channels were temporarily blocked by the Bangladeshi government on the day it promised to uphold death sentences for two important politicians, who had been convicted for war crimes. The usual number of Bangladeshi Tor users, 2,000, multiplied sixfold. These 12,000 new users were residents of Bangladesh who “presumably sought ways to read about and discuss the event” (Rahman).
In 2014, approximately 2.5 million people worldwide used Tor browser software every day. However, the large majority of them used the browser to anonymously and safely browse surface websites (websites you can search for and find with any browser), not deep or dark web sites (Clemmitt). Even though Tor has been at the center of controversy and media-induced hysteria, it is not evil and it is not a bad thing. Tor software benefits people worldwide, giving people free speech, safety, and privacy when using the internet - something that every human deserves.
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