The dark web is a part of the internet used by criminals, dissidents, drug dealers, and hackers to share information and trade products and services safely and anonymously, will be 20 years old this month.
Generally speaking, the dark web is defined as all content hosted on markets, or online networks that require a specific browsing software to access.
It’s a subset of the deep web, meaning search engines like Google or Bing do not index it, and therefore less transparent and more difficult to scrutinize.
The dark web is most widely used as a black marketplace trading post where people sell drugs, counterfeit documents, credit cards, and data stolen in illegal breaches.
Law enforcement agencies like the FBI have repeatedly carried out stings on the dark web to arrest and charge criminals, but illegal activity continues to increase.
The secrecy afforded by the dark web has also granted activists and political dissidents a place to organize with less government scrutiny.
Governments across the world have made attempts to ban encrypted servers, while activists have looked after encryption tools.
Dark web activity has steadily grown over the past decade. Tor, one of the most commonly-used encrypted routers, currently hosts roughly 80,000 unique sites, according to its internal numbers.
The dark web has shaped the world, both online and off, in the two decades since it came into existence. Many of these events have been cataloged by GroupSense, a cybersecurity company that monitors dark web activity.
Here’s a look back at some things the dark web has impacted the most.
March 2000: Freenet, the first widely available, anonymous file-sharing system, goes live.
Freenet began in 1999 as a student by Ian Clarke, an Irish programmer studying at the University of Edinburgh, and was released broadly in March 2000.
Like many pioneers of the early internet, Clarke believed the web would enable a free-for-all of information sharing, and could make the concept of copyright obsolete.
“If this whole thing catches on, I think that people will look back in 20 to 40 years and look at the idea that you can own information in the same way as gold or real estate in the same way we look at witch-burning today,” Clarke told The New York Times shortly after Freenet’s launch.
August 2004: The US Navy releases the code for Tor, also known as the onion router.
Tor, the most generally used dark web software, was first developed beginning in the 1990s by the Office of Naval Research and DARPA as a tool for protecting encrypted, military communications.
The Naval Research Lab publicly released the code in 2004, and management of the software was subsequently handed over to the Tor Project, a nonprofit organization.
January 2009: Satoshi Nakamoto releases version 0.1 of the Bitcoin, setting a new framework for encrypted payments online.
After encrypted servers set the standard for truly anonymous information sharing, bitcoin delivered on the promise of anonymous money transfers.
While Bitcoin transfers immediately became a hotbed for money laundering, they also had a massive effect on the market in the years that followed.
One bitcoin was worth a few dollars for years, then skyrocketed to a peak of $20,000 per bitcoin in 2017. Today, one bitcoin is worth about $6,000.
2010–2013: The dark web becomes an information-sharing hub for Arab Spring revolutionaries.
As social media and online forums fanned the flames of revolution across North Africa and the Middle East in the early 2010s, the dark web became a safe place for organizers to share information without government scrutiny.
Activists and dissidents used Tor to exchange info about remedies for tear gas, to organize protests, and escape censorship.
The trend reportedly continued in years that followed, including during the Syrian revolution.
February 2011: Silk Road, the first dark-web marketplace, is founded by Ross Ulbricht.
Silk Road launched in 2011 as the first dark web market. The site, which was mainly used for selling illegal drugs, saw a boost in traffic after Gawker’s Adrian Chen documented the drug trade there.
Federal authorities shut down the site in 2013 and arrested its founder, Ross Ulbricht. Ulbricht was found guilty of drug trafficking charges and sentenced to life in jail without the possibility of parole.
May 2012: LinkedIn is hacked, and the personal data of 117 million people is shared on the dark web.
The breach, which did not come to light for years, included the theft of people’s login credentials and all personal information associated with their accounts. It was the largest breach in LinkedIn’s history.
2013: Roughly 3 billion Yahoo accounts are compromised in a breach, with credentials shared on the dark web.
The 2013 attack compromised every single Yahoo account in existence and was not discovered until nearly three years later.
Yahoo sold to Verizon in 2017 for $4.48 billion, but the revelation of the 2013 breach earlier that year nearly derailed the deal and knocked $350 million off of Verizon’s initial offer.
2015: ISIS begins using the dark web as an organizing tool.
The Islamic State’s rapid growth in power in the mid-2010s was facilitated by the terrorist group’s embrace of all online channels available.
That included Twitter and Facebook, where it was carefully monitored by US intelligence officials, as well as the dark web, where the group could escape scrutiny.
In 2015, then FBI Director James Comey called for regulation that would put “back doors” in place on encrypted services.
Federal agencies have continued that push, but tech companies have been resistant to build backdoors, arguing they would weaken security across the board.
2017: In a hacker “civil war,” one of the dark web’s largest hosting sites is taken offline, knocking out more than 10,000 services.
Freedom Hosting II, a provider that hosted more than 10,000 Tor sites, was taken offline by a rogue hacker in 2017, knocking out roughly one-fifth of the entire dark web.
The hacker said they carried out the attack because Freedom Hosting II had become an outsize hub for sharing child pornography, claiming in an interview with Vice that they identified over 30 GB of child porn after the takedown.
2017–2020: Law enforcement embarks on a more successful crackdown on dark-web crime, leading threat actors to abandon the service in favour of encrypted messaging apps.
In 2017, the FBI successfully took down AlphaBay, a dark-web trading market that had grown to roughly ten times the size of Silk Road at its peak.
As law enforcement increasingly cracks down on dark web providers, hackers and traders of contraband are moving to encrypted messaging apps like Telegram and WhatsApp, which promise end-to-end encryption and include tools for forwarding messages to larger groups of people while remaining anonymous.