Consumer: The dark side of the web

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The internet provides us with a wealth of information. But it has a darker side, too, as Sheena Hastings reports.

JAMIE Bartlett says he’s quite a well-adjusted 30-something who hasn’t been permanently damaged by the experience of spending a year exploring the dark matters that lurk at the fringes of the internet.

His aim was to put judgement aside in order to write a book for a mainstream audience about this anonymous world.

Bartlett met neo-Nazis who use the so-called ‘Dark Net’ to rant to each other about immigration, and savvy young women making hundreds of pounds a night by performing live webcam sex shows in their bedrooms.

While bad and even criminal behaviour are not exclusive to the further reaches of the web - every week we hear of the hacking of photographs and inhuman ‘trolling’ (vicious bullying) activity on social media commonly used on the ‘surface’ web - the very anonymity of the Dark Web means users are less likely to self-censor and even more likely to dehumanise their victims.

This ‘deeper’ level of the net is thought to comprise anything upwards of 50,000 sites, hosted around the world. There are thought to be 50,000 people in the UK viewing or sharing child pornography, for example, much of it generated abroad.

The borderless nature of the internet and the anonymity of the Deep Web makes it almost impossible to police. “The police and security agencies are running to stand still,” says Bartlett, who is director of the Centre For The Analysis of Social Media at the think tank Demos. “I wanted to delve a bit deeper into a world that we just see small glimpses of. I felt like no one was getting the full story, no one was going in there and trying to immerse themselves properly and trying to understand these communities.”

The phrases ‘Dark Net’ and ‘Deep Web’ are bandied about, but are they the same thing? The Dark Net, says Bartlett, is part of the Deep Web, and refers to a series of obscure internet subcultures. The Deep Web includes all websites not indexed by commonly used search engines such as Google.

These sites are accessed by a separate kind of server, which hides both the identities and locations of website hosts and their users.

Pretty quickly civil liberties groups across the globe saw the potential to evade censorship by repressive regimes.

But each technology also has its abusers - like pornographers and highly professionalised drug dealers.

Bartlett also took in the world of the online political extremist, one of the most notorious of whom was Anders Breivik, the right-wing extremist who killed 77 people in a terrorist attack in Norway in 2011.

Breivik was labelled a ‘lone wolf’, but he belonged to an online network, and also believed that social media, particularly Facebook, would help ‘white resistance movements’ to fight back against the multiculturalism he so detested.

The internet, and not just the hidden sites it hosts but the ‘surface web,’ too, has enabled radical voices to be heard, to find like-minded people and to organise themselves quickly. “They feel unfairly treated by the mainstream media, and have a greater presence on social media in relation to their overall size,” says Bartlett.

He thinks the grooming of young British Muslims by Isis started on social media before conversations were taken to more private places in the web.

Bartlett’s research left him feeling there are big unanswered questions about how governments and security agencies deal with the threats the internet poses. “Police and intelligence agencies keep saying their job is getting harder, especially since the Edward Snowden Wikileaks story, which means more and more people like whistleblowers are using anonymous sites.”

Since the Snowden case attitudes have changed. “We’ve been stuck with the government trying to pass legislation to update its powers to do internet monitoring, but it doesn’t get through the House of Commons - usually because of arguments about civil liberties.”

In among all the activities on the web, Bartlett found “welcoming groups and incredibly creative communities”.

But one of the most disturbing areas he explored was that of self-harm and websites where young people befriend each other in an effort to starve themselves, sometimes to the point of death.

“The NHS should look at this, asking ‘how we can produce something better to help these young people?’, rather than just saying let’s shut down these websites.”

Looking at images of skeletal teens took its toll.

“The one thing that sticks with me is the speed at which I stopped being shocked by anything I saw.

Repeated exposure makes it easy for you to lose your moral compass.”

He hopes parents will read his book The Dark Net and act.

“If you’re going to have a conversation about these sites and safety it’ll be a much better conversation if you’ve had a look, and don’t have the idea that the internet is just the BBC and Google.”

The Dark Net by Jamie Bartlett, published by Windmill, is priced £9.99. Bartlett will be talking at a Salon North event at Harrogate International Festivals, at Harrogate Masonic Hall, on April 23.


LAST year Justice Secretary Chris Grayling moved to tackle the ‘baying cyber-mob’ and proposed new legislation under which internet trolls could face up to two years in prison - quadrupling the existing maximum term. Under the new measures, magistrates could pass serious cases on to crown courts, to be dealt with under an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill.

His announcement came a few days after TV presenter Chloe Madeley suffered online abuse including rape threats.