Thursday, 19 February 2015

The Dark Net by Jamie Bartlett Review

The Deep Web is a significant part of the internet that doesn’t show up on regular search engines and can only be accessed via TOR encrypted browsers. Probably the most famous part of the Deep Web is Silk Road which became famous for successfully selling drugs in vast quantities over the internet. The “dark internet” is dead data that can no longer be reached via computers and Darknet is a file-sharing network that’s part of the Deep Web.

I mention these distinctions because it seems that many readers have picked up this book believing that it’s about the Deep Web but really only one chapter directly addresses it. Jamie Bartlett’s The Dark Net is instead about the shadier parts of the internet – literally the dark parts of the internet - most of which is part of the surface internet, that is, sites that can be accessed via Google, etc. Blogger is part of the surface net, for example.

Topics in this book include trolls who set out to destroy peoples’ lives, the nuances of the Assassination Market, and extreme right-wingers who develop and hone their manifestos online and sometimes go even further, like Anders Behring Breivik who, in 2011, killed a total of 77 people during a calculated bomb/gun attack in Norway. Breivik believed non-whites were taking over Europe and set out to reduce the numbers himself. Bartlett also looks at Bitcoin, the rise of child porn, pro-anorexia forums, camgirl sites, and the belief of transhumanism, where some people are trying to upload their brains onto the internet and live forever in digital form (a lot like the Johnny Depp film, Transcendence).

Bartlett’s approach is more focused on the human side of things – how the internet is affecting us, changing our behaviour, and the pros and cons of these developments – as opposed to the technical side and/or focus on the programming itself. And though many of the subjects are reprehensible – child porn, extreme racism – Bartlett’s tone is neutral throughout, which you would want from a professional journalist looking at a serious subject. It’s also the best approach to inform the reader and the book is a fine introduction to anyone unfamiliar with these topics.

I can’t say I was as engaged with all of the subjects covered here with the camgirl chapter feeling especially drawn-out, while the child porn chapter was very difficult to get through simply because of the subject. There’s also a discussion between a transhumanist (who essentially wants to live in the internet as a digital file copy of his brain) and an anarcho-primitivist (who wants to return to the days of extremely low-technology based societies of old) that closes out the book. The anarcho-primitivist’s arguments are so unconvincing, it was a very weak argument. I don’t share either view but going back to the living standards of ancient civilisation is pure fantasy – and that’s contrasted with a man who wants to live forever on the internet!

I did learn a lot though as Bartlett goes back to the creation of the internet back in the 1970s when it was known as the Arpanet and used mainly by academics, and it’s interesting that right from the get go people were bickering amongst themselves on forums, much like they do today, as well as talking about porn, drugs, and suicide. The history of cryptography and the roots of the cypherpunk movement – which included Wikileaks’ Julian Assange – is delved into as well. It’s also interesting that the term “troll” refers to a fishing term where you troll a line for fish, as opposed to the idea that an internet troll is like the mythical creature living under bridges!

The chapter on Bitcoins is very clear and enlightening, and it’s eye-opening that pro-anorexia forums exist – literally places where groups (usually made up entirely of women) would support each other in not eating and becoming dangerously thin! It’s also disturbing to find out that, using a TOR browser, child porn is so accessible - just three clicks away! – and how easily people (usually made up entirely of men) become addicted to it, and then ruin their lives with it after being caught and convicted by police.

Bartlett tries to present a balanced argument which does have some positives to it. The pro-anorexia forums allow for a kind of therapy for people who don’t have any other outlet to talk, and the camgirls trend allows some women to make a decent living off of some harmless adult entertainment, as opposed to being unemployed and/or struggling to make a living with low-paying jobs. Bitcoin is an intriguing idea too.

Mostly though, the negatives seem to outweigh the positives. Bullying and harassment on sites like 4chan from trolls lead to devastated lives and sometimes suicide; there is no upside to child porn or extremist politics; Silk Road, while being a dynamic, well designed and user friendly site, pushed harmful drugs that doubtless caused, and continued, all kinds of problems; and the downside to pro-anorexia forums is obvious: hospitalisation and early death. And while talking about problems on forums can be therapeutic, they can push people who’re looking for support in, say, killing themselves, to actually do it (and many do).

The Dark Net is a well-written and thoroughly researched book that’s very revealing of some of the internet’s various sub-cultures. It doesn’t cover them all – file-sharing sites like BitTorrent and Pirate Bay are bypassed entirely – and it certainly lives up to its title but it’s no less a frequently fascinating and very accessible read.

The Dark Net

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