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What is the dark web? A parent’s guide

CEOP explains the dark web, the reasons why your child might be using it, and what you need to know about it

The internet has changed in many ways since it first became publicly accessible in the 1990s. One of the most controversial developments is the growth of the so-called dark web. This is the part of the World Wide Web that allows users to remain anonymous. You may be concerned about your child visiting the dark web, especially as press reports often associate it with dangerous, or illegal, online activity.

However, it is not always used for illicit activity and the problem does not come from the technology itself, but rather from the ways in which people use it. Being aware of the basic facts about these parts of the internet can help you to have open and realistic conversations with your child, especially if you are concerned about them using the dark web.

What are the different parts of the internet?

  1. The open web is the publicly visible part of the internet that most of us use every day, and which we access through search engines such as Google or Yahoo.
  2. The deep web is the part of the internet which is generally hidden from public view. Unlike the open web, the deep web is not accessed via the usual search engines. Much of it is very ordinary; organisations have websites that can only be read by authorised people such as their employees, with their information password-protected. One example is your medical history; this can be accessed from anywhere, by authorised persons.
  3. The dark web is generally accessed using dedicated software, with the best known being Tor (The Onion Router). Around 2.5 million people use Tor every day. It provides anonymising software which can be accessed via a Google search and then downloaded free of charge. Tor itself is not the dark web but is a way to browse both the open and dark web, without anyone being able to identify the user or track their activity.

Why do people use Tor to access the dark web?

Here are 3 main reasons why people may use the dark web:

To be anonymous  

There are reasons why someone may want to protect their online identity. In some cases, this is because they would be in danger if their identity became known. For example, in countries where the government forbids a free press, where there is political censorship, or where people are concerned about online security. Tor is mainly used to browse the open web anonymously; only a very small percentage of its traffic relates to hidden services.

To access ‘hidden services’

A hidden service is one where not only the user, but also the website itself, has their anonymity protected by Tor. This means that the IP address of the site cannot be identified, hiding information about its host, location or content. Tor is not a hidden service, but the sites it hosts are. Hidden services can be used legitimately, for example for remaining unknown when whistleblowing (exposing unethical or illegal activity within an organisation). Studies suggest that the majority of Tor hidden service activity is illicit. For example, a study in 2014 found that nearly 60% of hidden services contain illegal content such as drugs, weapons and stolen goods.

For illegal activity

The dark web may be used by people to carry out illegal activities online, such as selling weapons or drugs. These kinds of activities, and the websites offering them, are often referred to as hidden services, as explained above.

Using Tor or visiting the dark web are not unlawful activities in themselves. But it is against the law to carry out illegal acts such as accessing child abuse images, promoting terrorism or selling illegal items such as weapons. 

I’ve just discovered that my child is using Tor. What should I do?

It is important to keep a sense of perspective. There are many reasons for using Tor, and it does not automatically mean that they are doing anything dangerous or illegal.

In many ways, the risks of the dark web are the same as those that may be encountered in the open web. Young people in both environments may access pornography, indecent images of children, or sites selling drugs and weapons. Young people are also at risk of exploitation and abuse by sex offenders who use all parts of the internet to target victims. However, there is evidence to show that offenders are more likely to interact with victims on the open web than on the dark web.

Have an honest talk

It is important to have open conversations with your child to help them develop safer behaviours online. Explain to your child that there is a lot of illegal content in the dark web, and that you do not want them to be exposed to this.

Respect their desire for privacy

Many young people are concerned with political matters such as internet privacy and security. They may feel the dark web offers an additional layer of security. There may be alternatives you could explore such as the use of a VPN (Virtual Private Network) as a potential means of providing an additional layer of security to their online activities.

In addition, encouraging young people to use privacy filters on social media, think critically about what they share online, and control who is on their friends and contacts lists, is a good way to help them maintain their online profile discreetly.

Get support and be supportive

You can use the Thinkuknow website to explore strategies that your child can use to help them to stay safer online, as well as tips on managing their online lives.

Above all, young people should know where to go if they come across something that worries them or makes them feel uncomfortable, in both the open and dark webs. Make sure they know they can come to you if they need to, regardless of where on the internet it may have occurred.

In addition, ensure they know how to report to CEOP if they are concerned about sexual abuse and exploitation online.

Further reading

What is the dark web and is it a threat?

Don’t be afraid of the dark net

 

The advice published on Parent Info is provided by independent experts in their field and not necessarily the views of Parent Zone or CEOP.

First published: May 2018

 

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