Are the Deep Web and Dark Web Illegal?

Written by Sydney Butler
Published on December 23, 2018

When mainstream media handle cyber-security topics, there seems to be a tendency to make it edgier than it really is. That’s why we get such unrealistic movies about hackers and the darker side of online life. In modern times shows like Mr. Robot has gone a long way to more accurate portrayals, but it’s easy to understand why non-tech people have a warped view of what goes on behind the glossy exterior of the WWW.

The two most recent bogeymen are the Deep Web and Dark Web. The names alone evoke an air of mystery and danger, yet most people really have no idea what the terms even mean. The media have played up these online spaces as the source of all that’s evil on the web and certainly have scared off mainstream users from setting foot within their confines.

A common question is whether the mere existence of the Deep and Dark Webs is illegal. Like BitTorrent or Bitcoin technology, the technical implementation has become tainted with stories of people who sell illegal items or provide illegal services.

Defining the Deep-, Dark- and Surface Webs

Deep Web Shark

We've explained the deep and dark web at length in an earlier article, but it's worth recapping the most important facts right here. There's actually nothing all that magical or mysterious about either of these concepts.

The web is essentially a network of services that exist on the internet. It can be divided into three main parts. The surface web is the one everyone uses every day. When you type a search term into Google, all the results that it spits out are part of the surface web. By definition, any site that gets automatically indexed by a search engine is on the surface web.

The Deep Web is simply those parts of the web that aren't indexed and therefore don't show up in search results. Most content on the web is actually deep web content. For the most part, it's pretty mundane. Databases, unlinked content, private internal company sites and other similar web fodder all form part of the deep web.

The Dark Web is a relatively tiny subset of deep web content. It is not below the surface because of a search engine technicality or because it's of no interest. Instead, Dark Web sites are hidden on purpose. Almost all Dark Web sites must be accessed through Tor -the Onion Router. A special encrypted browser working through a global anonymized network. This powerful anonymous technology was quickly used to create sites using the .onion top-level domain, where only those who know exactly what they are doing can even make it to the front door.

Why the Legal Worries?

Careful Where You Click Dark Web Legal Dangers

So why are people so worried about the legality of these hidden depths of the web? It probably has something to do with the frequent stories in the news about law enforcement butting heads with denizens of the Dark Web. The Silk Road drug marketplace is probably the most infamous example and not too long ago its erstwhile admin pleaded guilty to some serious charges. Earlier this month European authorities pulled off a massive operation spanning 13 countries and 300 homes. This was part of a hunt for Dark Web money counterfeiters.

So, clearly, if your impression of the Dark Web is based on what you read in the news, it makes perfect sense that you would be worried about getting into legal trouble. Let's look at this in a more rational light and see if we can't get a good answer on the legal issues that surround the Dark Web.

Would It Be Illegal Anywhere Else?

FBI Bust in LEGO

As I alluded to earlier, the technology that underpins the Dark Web itself isn't illegal. Now, in some repressive states, it is possible that any technology which can hide information from the government may be frowned upon. In free, modern democracies, however, it's no different than using encryption to secure the content of your phone. You have the right to privacy in such countries.

That leaves the things you actually do on the Dark Web as the measure of how legal things are. The only question you have to ask yourself is whether what you intend on doing while on the Dark Web would be illegal if you did it outside of the Dark Web. This is a strictly legal question. You might be engaged in something that's taboo or socially unacceptable, but that's not the same as being illegal.

If you're buying a controlled substance on the Dark Web and that's illegal in your home country, then obviously you are committing a crime. If you are simply joining a Dark Web forum to exchange ideas and talk about things people don't want to see on the surface web, in most cases, you won't be breaking any laws.

A Common Sense Approach

There are two things you need to dip your toes into the Dark Web with a reasonable amount of safety. The first is a good general idea of the laws you are subject to in your home country. The laws in the country hosting the Dark Web site or service isn't usually relevant to you. For the most part, what matters are local authorities?

The second thing you need is a healthy dose of common sense. If something seems or feels fishy, stop what you are doing and make sure you aren't about to get into some sort of legal trouble. A simple Google search or two on the surface web might spare you some jail time.

Summing It All Up

OK, so what is the verdict? First of all, the Deep Web is just the mountain of supporting, non-indexed data on the web. There's nothing illegal about something just because it doesn't show up on a search engine. This is a feature of the web, not a bug.

When it comes to the Dark Web, it depends on what you are doing while there. There are plenty of perfectly legal things you can do on the Dark Web. Just be circumspect about who you talk to, what you say to them and what you agree to do.

As always, we aren't lawyers and every country has its own laws. It's always up to you when it comes to making sure your activities are legal.

So, what do you think? Do you live somewhere the mere act of accessing the Dark Web breaks a law? Have you been to the Dark Web yourself? Let us know in the comments below. Follow TechNadu on Facebook and Twitter for more interesting finds.

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