International Relations in the Dark

This year’s Davos forum covered a lot of ground on issues relating to the human implications of digital media, including the ways in which terrorist organizations like the Islamic State leverage social media and how governments interact with the challenges and opportunities provided by increasing connectivity. But one key facet of the digital age was largely absent from Davos: the dark web.

The 2013 bust of Silk Road mastermind Dread Pirate Roberts (aka Ross Ulbricht) was the first time many people heard the phrase ‘dark web,’ which typically refers to the hidden corner of the web where anonymous users solicit drugs, prostitutes, hit men, child pornography, illicit arms, and any other illegal substance and/or activity imaginable. The dark web has another side, though: the side that provides the anonymity and access necessary for activists, journalists, and others who need to stay secure when protesting authoritarian regimes, providing tips for law enforcement, or reporting in countries with strict censorship laws. The role that the dark web plays in everything from illegal trafficking to terrorist fundraising to subverting Internet censorship ought to be taken into account when discussing the ways in which the web intersects with human rights, international relations, and politics.  The many facets of the dark web deserve a nuanced discussion on the global stage, and Davos would have been an excellent forum for such a discussion.

The dark web has been used by terrorist organizations to spread propaganda, secure financing, and procure supplies. Around the time of the Paris attacks, for example, ISIS was discovered to have migrated to this underground channel. This was surprising, given the organization’s propensity for relying on highly visible social media networks like Facebook and Twitter to spread their message and recruit new members, but it is likely that they were pushed to move some of their activities underground following hacktivist attempts to hinder their operations. Of course, it’s highly probable that ISIS members were already involved with the dark web, exploiting the anonymous nature of the marketplace to raise funds, traffic weapons, and distribute training manuals and avoid being tracked by international regulators.

Though ISIS’s dark web use has been thrust into the spotlight, many people around the world benefit from the security and anonymity offered by Tor browser, the most commonly used software for dark web access.  Journalists, government agents, dissidents, and activists all use the network to transmit crucial information about the conditions on the ground in locations that restrict access to information. It was widely used, for example, in Egypt’s Arab Spring uprisings by activists looking to circumvent government censorship and access the social media sites used to plan demonstrations and spread information outside the country. Even average web users in non-oppressive countries are coming to rely on Tor to protect their privacy and casually browse the web without being tracked by advertisers.

Clearly, the dark web has uses beyond terrorist financing or trafficking.  Indeed, it seems, at times, that the dark web is everywhere, intertwined with everything from international terrorism to global activist movements to ordinary, confidential web access. This means, for better or worse, policymakers and international organizations are going to have to figure out how to cope with this wild west of the Internet, how to trace and prevent illegal activity while preserving the secure elements used by reporters and activists alike. International organizations that focus on counterterrorism efforts, like INTERPOL (which has published a number of articles on the subject), could benefit from an open discussion with world leaders on the ways in which the hidey-hole of the dark web facilitates terrorist activity and how this can be remedied, while organizations aimed at protecting individual liberties on the web, like the Global Internet Freedom Consortium, could discuss novel ways to raise awareness of how to use Tor to provide secure, anonymous internet access.

A global, nuanced dialogue that acknowledges that the dark web is more than just a buying place for black-market goods or a channel for terrorist activity is the first step towards identifying ways to reduce illegal activity while maintaining the components that protect journalists and human rights activists.  Any unilateral action taken to try to shut down Tor browser (or any of the other services used to access the dark web) in an attempt to stem terrorist financing and reduce the drug trade will most likely result in pushback from groups like Human Rights Watch and Reporters without Borders, as well as from individuals who rely on Tor to access the internet without threat of government censorship. Additionally, shutting down the dark web would have immediate negative consequences for those relying on it for safety and security.  There is more to the dark web than meets the eye, and this is worthy of extensive, all-encompassing consideration on the global stage.

Michelle Bovée is an account executive at a business development firm in the Washington, DC metro area and a graduate of the London School of Economics MSc International Relations program. She is a staff writer for Charged Affairs, where her focus areas include current events and international economics.

Image: “Binary” (credit: Christopher Neugebauer/Flickr).


Michelle Bovée

Michelle Bovee is a Market Intelligence manager at MAGNA Global, where she focuses on global advertising revenues and media cost trends, particularly in Western and Northern Europe. She graduated from the London School of Economics with a Master's degree in International Relations in 2013 and is currently living in New York City. You can connect with her on Twitter @boveemc.
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