Legitimizing the Dark Web: The New York Times’s Tor Hidden Service

A few days ago, I poured myself a fresh cup of coffee, opened up my laptop, started up the Tor Browser, and read the New York Times. But I didn’t type in https://www.nytimes.com into the Tor Browser. I instead typed https://www.nytimes3xbfgragh.onion/ [warning: that’s an onion link]. That 16 character alphanumeric address took me to the “Dark Web” edition of the New York Times, a version that has been available since late October.

No, this isn’t a pirated version of the Times meant to get people around the paywall. No, the stories aren’t surrounded by ads for drug markets. No, the Russians are not producing this version of the Times to promote fake news.

https://www.nytimes3xbfgragh.onion/ is legit.

The Times‘s entry into the Dark Web might sound strange, given that the predominant narrative about the Dark Web is that it is full of child exploitation images, black hat hackers, terrorists, identity thieves, and drug and gun markets. Indeed, the definition of “Dark Web” as “anything bad that happens on the Web” might be the most popular definition of that term.

But as I argue in my forthcoming book, Weaving the Dark Web: A Trial of Legitimacy on Freenet, Tor, and I2P (MIT Press 2018), this definition of the Dark Web is quite misleading. Instead of a definition playing on the moral connotations of “darkness,” my definition of “Dark Web” is collections of Web sites (made of HTML and CSS) accessible with a standard Web browser which is routed through anonymizing software. Dark Web sites are regular Web sites, but with the twist that the special routing software hides the IP addresses of both readers of the sites as well as publishers of the sites. In doing so, both readers and publishers are anonymized. To be certain, criminals have used this anonymizing capability to sell drugs and share illegal content. But activists and dissidents have used these same tools to discuss politics and blow the whistle on governments. And this is not to mention more benign sites on the Dark Web, like chess engines, cat fact sites, search engines, or social networking sites.

In addition to pushing back against the moral definition of “Dark Web,” my definition also pushes against another definition: the Dark Web is simply another name for the Tor network. There are multiple routing software packages one can use to visit and publish Web sites anonymously. The oldest is Freenet, developed in 1999 by computer scientist Ian Clarke. The Tor Network was inspired in part by Freenet, as was another anonymizing system, the Invisible Internet Project (or I2P), both of which came online a few years after Freenet started.

My definition might be clearer than “Dark Web = evil” or “Dark Web = Tor”, but it does little to explain how the New York Times came to the Dark Web and specifically to Tor hidden services. My definition notwithstanding, most journalists still define the Dark Web as a seedy underbelly only accessible with Tor. Why would the Times want to associate with this supposedly evil Web? Why put America’s most respected newspaper onto the same network the Nazi site Daily Stormer retreated to?

The answer is profoundly boring. The Times in the Dark happens because of esoteric competition among anonymizing network builders, especially between the Tor Project and I2P, as well as the mundane yet important processes of setting Internet standards. As I argue in my book, https://www.nytimes3xbfgragh.onion/ is possible because of three trials of legitimacy, all of which Tor appears to have won: a trial of authenticity, where “real” coders and hackers make the best software; a trial of propriety, where an organization successfully claims resources and respect; and a trial of violence, where networks promise to protect dissidents from state power.

The Legit: Authenticity

On the Dark Web, authentic things – whether they be drug markets, hackers, or counterfeit currencies – are labeled “legit.” To be legit is to be for real, not bullshit, not a fake or a scam. Along with legit status comes a degree of power and influence within whatever sociotechnical circles one runs in.

This particular trial of legitimacy is not limited to the Dark Web, but is a feature of any creative community, which includes those who build the underlying anonymizing software. As I discuss in my book, over the years, Freenet, Tor, and I2P have all contested one another’s legitimacy, through highly technical and often snarky debates across mailing lists and at computer science conferences. Broadly, these debates centered on key questions: which of the networks is for real? Which one would really anonymize both readers and producers of Web content? Which one is legit?

There are many ways to become legit, but one key way is to be consecrated as such. The Tor Project has enjoyed multiple endorsements over the years. There are two key examples: Edward Snowden and Jake Appelbaum. In his first interview with The Washington Post, Snowden posed for pictures, sitting on a couch with a laptop. On the back of the laptop are two stickers: the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Tor onion logo. It’s an endorsement of Tor by an Internet celebrity.

Second, like so many other men in power, Jake Appelbaum has since been disgraced by accusations of sexual violence and bullying. But prior to his disgrace, he was one of the most celebrated technologists on the planet, gracing the cover of Rolling Stone and standing in for Julian Assange at a HOPE conference. His employment by and advocacy for Tor carried a lot of weight in hacker and liberation tech circles.

In contrast, Freenet and I2P enjoy no such endorsements, making them appear less “legit” than Tor.

Propriety

In addition, for these projects to be legitimated, they need propriety. In other words, they need to command respect and command resources. As Nathalie Maréchal is tirelessly documenting, the Tor Project has succeeded here as well, enjoying the support of a wide range of donors, including the U.S. Naval Research Lab, Google, the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, DARPA, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The Tor Project’s latest fund drive was matched dollar-for-dollar by the Mozilla Foundation. All of this is not to mention the infrastructural support offered by people who run Tor relays.

Moreover, the Tor Project got a major boost due to another powerful organization, Facebook, which partnered with Tor to shepherd a new Internet Standard through the Internet Engineering Task Force’s Request for Comments Process. Facebook’s Alec Muffett collaborated with Tor’s Jake Appelbaum to get “special Top-Level Domain” status for Tor’s TLD, .onion. In going through this obscure Internet standards process, Muffett was able to secure approval of the Certificate Authority/Browser Group, which created a process by which Tor hidden services could get Extended Validation certificates. Basically, this means that corporations – such as Facebook [onion link] – could implement HTTPS connections within the Tor network.

In contrast, while Freenet is a non-profit like Tor, its revenues are far lower. The developers of I2P chose not to seek non-profit status (since that would reveal their identities) and it, too, has a far smaller budget. Combine these lower budgets with being shut out of the same IETF top-level domain process that enabled Tor to get such status for .onion, and the likelihood of corporations moving onto these networks is far lower.

Violence

Finally, the core legitimation move any anonymizing network makes is really a delegitimating move: the delegitimation of states’ claims to surveillance of online activities. Freenet, Tor, and I2P all justify their projects by arguing that they protect dissidents – indeed, a favorite synecdoche of theirs is “Jane Chinese Dissident.” They pull no punches, arguing that without their protection, dissidents will die at the hands of tyrants.

And this is where the other legitimacies come into the mix: we know an authentic anonymizing network because those who most fear state violence use it. And we gladly support such an organization with resources and respect. Over time, as a network gains legitimacy in all three registers, its position of dominance grows: channels drawing resources to it widen, while channels taking resources away constrict.

Mix all of these legitimacies together – Tor is for real; Tor is a respected organization; Tor protects us from state power – and we have the conditions of possibility for the New York Times to decide to set up its own Tor hidden service. The Times is in the midst of its own legitimation trials, fighting against fake news, seeking (and getting) more subscribers, and contesting the violence of the state. Runa Sandvig’s announcement of the Times’s Tor Hidden service plays to these registers:

The Times is dedicated to delivering quality, independent journalism, and our engineering team is committed to making sure that readers can access our journalism securely. This is why we are exploring ways to improve the experience of readers who use Tor to access our website.

Ultimately, the New York Times‘s presence on the Tor network delegitimates the argument that the Dark Web is pure evil. But its presence on Tor does lend credence to the idea that the Dark Web = only Tor. Its presence on Tor adds more evidence that Tor is winning its trials of legitimacy. In contrast, Freenet and I2P are becoming forgotten networks, perhaps soon to be lost to Internet history.

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