July 22, 2016

Darkness. Credit: Victor Plumbed / Flickr Creative Commons

The internet is a vast, unmapped world. There’s the surface, which you can easily get to, and then, there’s everything else.

Rosa Bransky, director of social purpose at the Flamingo Group, used to skim the internet’s surface: looking at websites like Facebook, The New York Times, Lucky Peach.

But a couple of years ago, she took a dive below.

“We were commissioned to understand the role and ubiquity of pornography in American life,” Bransky explains. Nowadays, most porn is consumed on the internet. So she started tracking the internet habits of men.

That took her below the surface web, and into its two other, and much larger, layers: the deep web and the dark web.

The deep web is the part of the internet that you can’t get to from Google. It’s “unmapped,” and difficult to find without help. You need specific hyperlinks, or “directions,” that take you straight to the website. But once you have those directions, it’s easy to get where you need to go.

The dark web is a slice of the deep web. Not only is it invisible to Google, it’s also restricted. You need a special “key,” like a specific kind of software or authentication permission, in order to access it.

The dark web, Bransky cautions, isn’t always a bad thing. It has provided space for Chinese dissidents, activists in the Arab Spring, and journalists hoping to hide their identity. It even has its own lit mag. But the dark web also hides the worst part of the internet: child pornography, drug traffickers, and assassins for hire.

Bransky tracked the activities of pornography users, following some of them from the surface, to the deep, and, finally, to the dark web. She began to notice a disturbing trend: “mainstream places were constantly nudging us into more explicit places.”

Even tame sites like Pinterest are top referrers to Pornhub. And Reddit, she discovered, is the top referrer to the dark web.

Bransky began to feel that the current fight against the worst parts of the internet was, in some ways, futile.

“Law enforcement is approaching the dark web… [similar] to the way the war on drugs was approached, which is that we can wage a war on the internet, and somehow win,” she says.

Bransky now believes that we should aim to educate young people about what to do when they come across damaging content, and how to respond to it.

“I think we need to understand that we can’t protect our children from this type of content, and we need to arm them with the tools to understand and make sense of this kind of world.”

Rosa Bransky, Dark Web, Kara Miller, WGBH, Sci and Tech, Pornography, Internet, pri, Deep Web

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