Shin­ing a light on to the in­ter­net’s murky depths

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - An­drew McMillen

The Dark Net: Inside the Dig­i­tal Un­der­world By Jamie Bartlett Ran­dom House, 320pp, $35 BE­NEATH the sur­face of the well-trod on­line paths char­ac­terised by fa­mil­iar cor­po­rate names — Google, eBay, YouTube, iTunes — main­stream news and en­ter­tain­ment por­tals lies a hid­den layer: the “dark net’’, a shadier cousin of the com­par­a­tively gen­er­al­ist ‘‘cy­berspace’’. It can­not be ac­cessed by tra­di­tional web browsers, only via anonymis­ing soft­ware called Tor, an acro­nym for The Onion Router, a cute nod to the net­work’s tech­ni­cal com­plex­ity.

In his in­tro­duc­tion to The Dark Net, Bri­tish au­thor Jamie Bartlett de­scribes this on­line realm as “a place with­out lim­its, a place to push bound­aries, a place to ex­press ideas with­out cen­sor­ship, a place to sate our cu­riosi­ties and de­sires, what­ever they may be. All dan­ger­ous, mag­nif­i­cent and uniquely hu­man qual­i­ties”.

Yet the dark net is best known for en­abling the de­vel­op­ment and pro­lif­er­a­tion of two shady hu­man en­deav­ours: mar­ket­places for il­licit drugs and child pornog­ra­phy hubs, ar­eas that Bartlett in­ter­ro­gates in some de­tail. How­ever, the ti­tle of this book is a bit mis­lead­ing: rather than peel­ing back the onion’s lay­ers, Bartlett broad­ens his scope by ex­am­in­ing the “myr­iad shock­ing, disturbing and con­tro­ver­sial cor­ners of the net — the realm of imag­ined crim­i­nals and preda­tors of all shapes and sizes”.

He be­gins by trac­ing the his­tory of the in­ter­net, and how the ‘‘on­line dis­in­hi­bi­tion ef­fect’’ led to in­cen­di­ary be­hav­iours such as ‘‘trolling’’ and ‘‘flaming’’. This sec­tion is en­light­en­ing and well writ­ten. Even though I’ve been a heavy in­ter­net user for nearly 15 years, I learned a lot.

“Whether we like it or not, trolling is a fea­ture of the on­line world to­day,” Bartlett con­cludes. “As we all live more of our lives on­line, trolls might help us to recog­nise some of the dan­gers of do­ing so, make us a lit­tle more care­ful, and a lit­tle more thick-skinned. One day, we might even thank them for it.”

He takes a mag­ni­fy­ing glass to ide­al­is­tic en­cryp­tion soft­ware and ‘‘cryp­tocur­ren­cies’’ such as Bit­coin, as well as so­cial net­works de­voted to in­flam­ma­tory top­ics such as self-harm, anorexia and Bri­tish na­tion­al­ism. The tone through­out is more jour­nal­is­tic than judg­men­tal: “For ev­ery de­struc­tive sub­cul­ture I ex­am­ined,” he writes, “there are just as many that are pos­i­tive, help­ful and con­struc­tive.”

The Bit­coin chap­ter takes him to a tech­no­com­mune in Barcelona, where pro­gram­mers code through the night, fu­elled by the lib­er­tar­ian prom­ise of the un­reg­u­lated cur­rency. But the au­thor isn’t con­vinced: “... if ev­ery­one starts us­ing Bit­coin, gov­ern­ment’s abil­ity to tax and spend will di­min­ish: health­care, ed­u­ca­tion and so­cial se­cu­rity will suf­fer. The things that hold democ­ra­cies to­gether, and pro­vide support for the most in need. So­ci­eties can­not be bro­ken and fixed like com­puter code, nor do they follow pre­dictable math­e­mat­i­cal rules. If gen­uinely anony­mous com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­comes the norm, it’s in­evitable that it will be

The Dark Net used by crim­i­nals too.” Such cau­tion is pre­scient: in Au­gust, the Aus­tralian Tax­a­tion Of­fice pub­lished a pa­per stat­ing its views on Bit­coin, in­clud­ing its in­ten­tion to treat it not as a cur­rency but as an as­set, akin to prop­erty or shares — a move that has been crit­i­cised by Bit­coin pro­po­nents as short­sighted and ill-in­formed.

The line about crim­i­nals quoted above is ex­plored in depth, too, when Bartlett in­ad­ver­tently stum­bles across a child pornog­ra­phy web­site while brows­ing the dark net’s Hid­den Wiki. “Once I’d opened my Tor browser, it took me two mouse clicks to ar­rive at the page ad­ver­tis­ing the link,” he writes. “If I had clicked again, I would have com­mit­ted an ex­tremely se­ri­ous crime. I can’t think of another in­stance where do­ing some­thing so bad is so easy.”

This nar­ra­tive thread takes him to the In­ter­net Watch Foun­da­tion, an or­gan­i­sa­tion de­voted to re­mov­ing on­line child pornog­ra­phy. At its of­fices in Cam­bridgeshire, no fam­ily pho­tos are al­lowed on desks, part of an ef­fort to keep pri­vate and pro­fes­sional lives sep­a­rate.

Bartlett, who is di­rec­tor of the Cen­tre for the Anal­y­sis of So­cial Me­dia at London think tank Demos, also in­ter­faces with il­licit drug mar­ket­places such as Silk Road, re­ceiv­ing a small amount of cannabis through the postal sys­tem after pay­ing for it with Bit­coin. Here his tone is one of aca­demic dis­tance: “Inside, the prod­uct was care­fully sealed, the cor­rect weight and, ac­cord­ing to an ex­pert friend of mine, ap­peared to be ex­tremely good qual­ity.”

In the book’s most en­ter­tain­ing vi­gnette, Bartlet sits in on a ‘‘camgirl’’ broad­cast wherein three young women plea­sure them­selves and each other in ex­change for cash tips from their thou­sands of global view­ers. “The three of them are sit­ting on the bed in sexy clothes, arms around each other like a school gang,” he writes breath­lessly. “I am sit­ting just off-cam­era, two feet away from the bed, a pad of pa­per and my lap­top on my knees […] It all feels a lit­tle strange, to say the least.”

Bartlett cov­ers a lot of ground in The Dark Net with­out be­com­ing bogged down in tech­ni­cal minu­tiae. Even ex­pe­ri­enced dark net users will find this book en­gross­ing. He also re­fuses to buy into the hys­te­ria about this on­line realm: “In the dark net, we can sim­ply find more, do more and see more. And in the dark net we have to be care­ful, cau­tious and re­spon­si­ble.”

tra­verses the in­ter­net’s ‘disturbing and con­tro­ver­sial cor­ners’

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.