A field guide to the In­ter­net’s dark and dan­ger­ous sub­cul­tures.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - book­world@wash­post.com Matthew Wis­nioski is an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of science and tech­nol­ogy in so­ci­ety and a se­nior fel­low of the In­sti­tute for Cre­ativ­ity, Arts, and Tech­nol­ogy at Vir­ginia Tech. He is the au­thor of “Engi­neers for Change.” RE­VIEW BY MAT

Aleague of trolls, an­ar­chists, per­verts and drug deal­ers is at work build­ing a dig­i­tal world be­yond the Sil­i­con Val­ley of­fices where our era’s best and bright­est have de­signed a Face­book-friendly In­ter­net. Most of us spend our days on the com­mer­cial sur­face of the World Wide Web, un­aware that the “darknet” on which these out­liers seek un­fet­tered free­dom is as much as 500 times larger than what is cap­tured by Google’s search en­gines.

The shad­owy realms of the In­ter­net are in­creas­ingly fa­mil­iar ter­ri­tory. From teen sex­ting to ter­ror­ist re­cruit­ment videos, the ne­far­i­ous el­e­ments of our elec­tronic world dom­i­nate head­lines. Stud­ies such as Andy Green­berg’s “This Ma­chine Kills Se­crets” shed light on the cryp­tog­ra­phy-based ac­tivism of Ju­lian As­sange and Ed­ward Snow­den that blends world-class pro­gram­ming with lib­er­tar­ian pol­i­tics. The dig­i­tal un­der­world sim­i­larly looms large in fic­tion, in­clud­ing the re­cent Cana­dian hor­ror se­ries “Darknet.” Imag­i­na­tion and re­al­ity of­ten in­ter­twine in these ac­counts. In May, the two worlds col­lided when the doc­u­men­tary “Deep Web” (nar­rated by “Ma­trix” hero Keanu Reeves), about the online drug bazaar Silk Road, was re­leased. That same month, the site’s founder, Ross Ul­bricht, who lifted his well-known alias “Dread Pi­rate Roberts” from “The Princess Bride,” was sen­tenced to life in prison on a va­ri­ety of counts in­clud­ing drug traf­fick­ing.

In “The Dark Net,” Jamie Bartlett, di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for the Anal­y­sis of So­cial Media at the Bri­tish think tank Demos, pro­vides a brac­ing tour of this dig­i­tal un­der­world. He de­scribes the hu­mil­i­a­tion of a user on the anony­mous bul­letin board ser­vice 4chan; trolls tricked her into plac­ing iden­ti­fy­ing de­tails in the nude photos she up­loaded, then sent the im­ages to her friends and fam­ily in a ma­li­cious prac­tice known as dox­ing. He ex­plores how white su­prem­a­cists forge con­nec­tions via so­cial media. He uses the crypto-cur­rency Bit­coin to pur­chase pot on Silk Road 2.0, which emerged online al­most im­me­di­ately af­ter Ul­bricht’s ar­rest, with a new Dread Pi­rate Roberts in charge. He vis­its com­mu­ni­ties ded­i­cated to anorexia, cut­ting and sui­cide. He even ap­pears in a we­b­cast with “cam­girls” who per­form on-de­mand sex acts for an in­ter­na­tional au­di­ence.

Bartlett de­fines the darknet more broadly than most. He in­cludes what is typ­i­cally known as the darknet, en­crypted sites ac­ces­si­ble with the anonymiz­ing soft­ware Tor, which was orig­i­nally cre­ated for po­lit­i­cal dis­si­dents by the U.S. Naval Re­search Lab­o­ra­tory. But he also counts the deep Web, an ex­pan­sive ter­rain of pass­word-pro­tected and lim­ited-ac­cess pages not in­dexed by search en­gines. More­over, he as­serts that the darknet goes be­yond soft­ware. To him, it is a col­lec­tive idea of “free­dom and anonymity, where users say and do what they like, of­ten un­cen­sored, un­reg­u­lated, and out­side so­ci­ety’s norms.” He thus ex­pands his scope to the fringe corners of main­stream so­cial net­works.

In lesser hands, a trav­el­ogue of the In­ter­net’s dens of in­iq­uity would amount to a ser­mon or a stunt. But Bartlett com­bines an in­sider’s ex­per­tise with a neo­phyte’s tale of dis­cov­ery. Rather than mea­sure the pros and cons of the Web, he maps its fron­tiers with­out judg­ment. The re­sult is a lu­cid in­quiry into the re­la­tion­ship be­tween tech­nol­ogy and free­dom that’s also a cap­ti­vat­ing beach book.

“The Dark Net” lets in­hab­i­tants of the dig­i­tal un­der­world speak for them­selves. Each chap­ter ex­plores a dif­fer­ent In­ter­net ac­tiv­ity or com­mu­nity in his­tor­i­cal con­text. The open­ing chap­ter on trolling, the prac­tice of pro­vok­ing online dis­rup­tion, traces the ac­tiv­ity from the early days of the fed­er­ally funded net­work Arpanet to the dial-up Bul­letin Board Sys­tems of the 1980s (on which I spent my child­hood) and the Usenet flame wars of the 1990s. To sim­u­late be­ing online, the au­thor in­ter­sperses chat logs through­out the text, in­clud­ing har­row­ing con­ver­sa­tions among teens with eat­ing dis­or­ders. The book’s an­chor and its unique strength, how­ever, are the in­ter­views Bartlett con­ducts with peo­ple he finds in the vir­tual world and then meets in the phys­i­cal one.

These in­ti­mate por­traits pay div­i­dends. We learn that, prior to the In­ter­net, the sup­ply of child pornog­ra­phy was “van­ish­ingly small.” In 1982, fed­eral en­force­ment agen­cies did not con­sider it “a high pri­or­ity,” and in 1990 the Na­tional So­ci­ety for the Preven­tion of Cru­elty to Chil­dren es­ti­mated that only 7,000 child porn im­ages were in cir­cu­la­tion. Bartlett tracks how the In­ter­net has aided a mas­sive pro­lif­er­a­tion of such pic­tures. “Be­tween 2006 and 2009,” he writes, “the U.S. Jus­tice Depart­ment recorded twenty mil­lion unique com­puter IP ad­dresses who were shar­ing child pornog­ra­phy files.” In a pow­er­ful chap­ter, a mid­dle-class busi­ness­man with a daugh­ter ex­plains to Bartlett the grad­ual de­scent that led to his ar­rest for pos­ses­sion of more than 3,000 im­ages. “I re­mem­ber think­ing at the time that it was ter­ri­ble,” the man says about one un­con­scionable video. “But I kept it, just in case.” We then ven­ture to a sub­ur­ban of­fice park where Bartlett joins In­ter­net Watch Foun­da­tion work­ers who de­scribe their cop­ing mech­a­nisms as they com­bat the spread of such videos.

The darknet isn’t all dark, how­ever. At a cypher­punk com­mune in Spain, the ac­tivist pro­gram­mer Amir Taaki, cre­ator of Dark Wal­let, tells Bartlett how Bit­coin will help top­ple cor­rupt gov­ern­ments. At a cafe in north­ern Eng­land, the ap­pro­pri­ately named Vex de­scribes how she makes a com­fort­able liv­ing by “pos­ing, chat­ting, strip­ping, and mas­tur­bat­ing” from the com­fort and safety of her home. A cheery en­tre­pre­neur, she main­tains a ded­i­cated fan club, talks books and pol­i­tics with reg­u­lars and cul­ti­vates a “real girl­friend ex­pe­ri­ence.” Across these un­easy pro­files, Bartlett’s aim is to “re­hu­man­ize” the peo­ple be­hind the screen while high­light­ing the blurred lines be­tween online and off­line iden­ti­ties.

Bartlett’s ex­pe­ri­en­tial pic­ture of the darknet is lim­ited by whom he per­suades to talk: We meet white-pride na­tion­al­ists but not or­ga­nized Is­lamic ex­trem­ists; de­spite their cer­tain pres­ence, gov­ern­ment agents re­main silent; there are no weapons traf­fick­ers or vi­o­lent crime syn­di­cates. His con­clu­sion also is unin­spired. In­stead of sug­gest­ing what we might do with his find­ings, he sets up the op­pos­ing camps of tran­shu­man­ists (who ar­gue en­thu­si­as­ti­cally that tech­nol­ogy and hu­man bi­ol­ogy are con­verg­ing) and techno-prim­i­tivists (who claim that tech­nol­ogy is erod­ing hu­man lib­erty), and knocks down both po­si­tions in fa­vor of view­ing the darknet as shades of grey.

Still, “The Dark Net” is an ex­cel­lent book that en­ter­tains as it takes its toll. You hap­pily fol­low Bartlett vi­car­i­ously. But you worry for the au­thor. He as­sures that he ac­quired no new taste for illegal pornog­ra­phy or drugs, though he ad­mits to be­com­ing “ac­cus­tomed and ha­bit­u­ated to hor­ri­ble and trou­bling things.” In a clever trick of wit­ness­ing and dis­tanc­ing, Bartlett al­le­vi­ates your queasi­ness and shock as you ac­cli­mate your­self to which­ever des­ti­na­tion he shows you next. But un­like him, you can sim­ply close the book.

The book’s medium thus soft­ens the blow of its mes­sage about the dig­i­tal un­der­world’s ac­ces­si­bil­ity. “I came to re­al­ize,” Bartlett writes, “that ev­ery­thing is close to the sur­face.” What, then, would war­rant a visit? Bartlett finds “breath­tak­ing cre­ativ­ity” and “as­ton­ish­ingly adap­tive and in­no­va­tive” ide­al­ists, whistle­blow­ers and en­trepreneurs. The dig­i­tal revo­lu­tion, he con­cludes, has not un­leashed a new age of bar­barism, but it has dra­mat­i­cally en­hanced ac­cess to hu­man­ity’s ex­tremes. His premise is that to un­der­stand our tech­no­log­i­cally me­di­ated re­al­ity re­quires re­mov­ing our blin­ders. Only then can we con­front what is new about the In­ter­net, what is in­her­ent to the hu­man con­di­tion and how the two co-evolve.

Sea­soned dwellers might scoff and trolls will troll, but nearly any­one else with a Web browser will learn from “The Dark Net.” Dis­cover at your own risk how dark­ness drives in­no­va­tion as much as does light.

By Jamie Bartlett Melville House. 308 pp. $27.95 THE DARK NET In­side the Dig­i­tal Un­der­world

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