Research suggests the dark web is not as dark as we think


While many will tell you the dark web is a seedy underworld where faceless entities trade drugs, weapons and humans, the fact is, the dark web still remains something of a mystery.

In an attempt to shed more light on the subject, Terbium Labs conducted research to try to answer the question: what is on the dark web?

Before we dive into the research we need to augment it with a few disclaimers. Defining what content that is available on the dark web is incredibly difficult and – as Terbium Labs points out – relies heavily on humans reviewing websites and aggregating them in lists. While resources such as the Hidden Wiki can provide a good starting point for dark web users, it is in no way an accurate snapshot of what is available.

Similarly, Terbium Labs has taken a snapshot of the dark web (400 websites) and examined those.

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“Using a human-curated list instead of a random draw is equivalent to only polling viewers of a single TV channel on their preferred candidate. The results will be biased and inaccurate. By using a random draw from the population of Tor Hidden Services found by our automated bigdata crawler, our approach minimizes the effect of selection bias,” the firm explains in the methodology of its study.

Once these websites were identified, a human went through them to determine what sort of content the site was home to.

A haven for legal content?

While sites such as Silk Road pushed the dark web into the mainstream, the research from Terbium Labs suggests that 47.7% of the URLs it looked at contained legal content. An additional 6.8% contained explicit content which is not illegal (to put it plainly: pornography) bringing the amount of legal content tied to URLs to 54.5%. Analysis of domains suggests that 53.4% of content is legal as well. So while a website might be home to drug traders there might also be some sections of the website that might contain legal content.

However, when looking at the illegal stuff on the dark web, it appears to be a drug paradise.

When Terbium Labs excluded the legal content, as many as 44.95% of URLs and 35.59% of domains contained drug trading. The goings on in these drug trades however is truly fascinating and reminds of a regular classified website you might find on the clear web.

The drug community is a self-regulating, even a self-policing group. Vendors rely on reviews and commentary to build their brand and drive orders. New vendors are quick to offer free samples, and the community is more than happy to test a new product. Reviews follow a standard template, where users rank the stealth, shipping time, purity, high, and overall experience with the vendor. The community quickly shuns know scammers as warnings pop up about disappearing packs or when buyers get less than half of what they paid for.

After drugs, Terbium says that 23.9% of the illegal URLs it looked at contained multiple categories of illicit products. This might include arms, drugs, electronics, counterfeit currency all bundled together in a market for users to browse through. Beyond that the next category of content is pharmaceuticals. URLs touting access to prescription medication accounted for 11.9% of sites in the study when removing legal content from the equation.

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To put it all into perspective this is what the content looks like:

A snapshot of the dark web URLs and the content they flaunt.

A snapshot of the dark web URLs and the content they flaunt.

As we mentioned this is just a snapshot of the content available on the dark web but it serves as a reminder that just because somebody is using the dark web doesn’t mean they’re up to any illegal activities. Perhaps they just want to protect their privacy.

[Source – Terbium Labs] [Image – CC BY SA 2.0 Emilio Küffer]

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