The Internet’s Lifesaver and Black Sheep

The darknet has an image problem: for many, it is the dark back alley of the internet where weapons, drugs and pornography are sold. In countries like China, Iran or Syria, however, it’s an important channel for independent journalists and activists to communicate anonymously. In both cases, the “darknet” means bypassing central servers and instead accessing a so-called Virtual Private Network (VPN). For example, a government-critical video doesn’t directly travel from A to B, but is instead channelled through different nodes: from A to B, from B to C – until the video lands at the receiving end. The trail is usually lost after the third node.

Journalist Ahmad Alrifaee lived in Syria until 2011 and depended on the darknet: “The Syrian regime has nothing to do with freedom or democracy, nor does it want to. Everything that is done for democracy and freedom is against the system and counts as opposition.” He transmitted a video of a demonstration to Western news agencies via the darknet – a tightrope act in which he risked his life.

Something that Daniel Moßbrucker, freedom of information advisor at the NGO Reporters Without Borders, who operate two of their own darknet nodes, knows well. “We see our servers as symbolic support for reporters. That fact that people might be selling drugs there as well is something that we unfortunately can’t rule out.”

But how do you investigate those people who abuse the darknet as a protected space for illegal activities? Andreas May from the Frankfurt Public Prosecution Office turns the tables in his job: “You try to get to the sellers by buying a couple of weapons. The really dumb rookies sometimes meet us in-person to do the handover.” Around 50 sellers have been caught this way over the last two years.   

The darknet currently only counts about two million users. That doesn’t surprise Moßbrucker: “Above all, it’s a question of conscience: we’re getting used to surveillance and already think that it's the norm.”

by Sylvia Lundschien and Theresa Liebig (EJS)

Photo credit: The National Archives (UK) (CC BY 3.0)