Why We Need the Dark Web

For most of human history, the idea that some authority could watch and track everything you did and said was unthinkable and the stuff of dystopian novels. The idea that this authority could also read your thoughts, track your every physical movement, and keep a permanent record of it all, was too much to even imagine.

But today, rather than be horrified by the idea, many are horrified by the idea of the opposite. They are horrified by the idea that you could act anonymously. They are horrified by the idea that you could communicate without a record being kept. They are horrified by the idea that you could live life outside of the watchful eye of government.

"There is a value in an of itself to not being watched."

I just listened to the Audible series, "The Dark Web." This series discusses the existence and use of the Tor browser and the many hidden websites on what is known as the dark web. This dark web gives true anonymity to the users allowing them to visit sites and interact without any chance of tracking by corporate or government entity. The series focuses most of its ten episodes to the crimes being committed in this space. They discuss the drugs being sold. They discuss weapons being sold. They discuss child pornography being traded and shared. Every horrible thing that you can imagine can be discussed, shared, and sold on the dark web.

And a big part of me understands how easy it is to see the horrors of the crimes and terrible people using the dark web and to say, "we should shut it down." It is not clear if shutting it down is even possible but what I want to argue here is we should not want to shut it down.

The one legitimate usage of the dark web that the Audible series discussed was that of getting anonymity from hostile entities. Avoiding overbearing or censoring governments is one of the primary legitimate reasons.  But the series questioned this argument by saying that only a small percentage of the usage of the dark web is this sort of legitimate political freedom usage while a larger percentage is for criminal usage. Isn't this evidence that, whatever minor good it does, it is primary a hang out for the worst sorts of criminals?

"Show me the man, and I'll show you the crime,” said Lavrentiy Beria, Soviet deputy premier to Stalin.

But step back and think about what we are talking about. We are talking about two worlds. One in which everything you do is seen, tracked and recorded in a permanent record. Another is the world in which everything you do is not seen, tracked, or recorded in a permanent record.

The second world is not some weird place, it is the place that humans have lived for our entire history on earth. Almost every human up until about twenty years ago, lived their entire life without their actions, thoughts, communications, and movements being seen, tracked, or recorded. We have no idea what George Washington thought about the weather on July 8, 1782 for example. No idea. And George Washington is famous and many of his communications are still known to history as a result. Think about the many carpenters, brick masons, farmers, and lawyers of his day that were not famous. We know absolutely nothing about their comings and goings, their communications, and their thoughts about any given topic on any given day.

 But we have a record of what you thought about the weather on July 8, 2010. Because you googled it and then made a social media post. We also know everything else you thought about and did that day. We know the places you went (thanks to your cell phone movements). We know the things you bought (thanks to your credit card records). Everything you  did and thought that day is on record.

The dark web then is not a scary thing where criminals can do something new and evil. The dark web is normality. It is simply a place where what was done for all of human history can continue. 

The main objection to my argument on this point is this:

If you are doing something that you are so scared for someone to observe, you should not be doing it.  Who cares if people see what I thought of the weather? Why would any care to observe that I watched cat videos, rented star wars, and then took the dog to the vet a year ago today? I live an honest and simple life and anyone observing would be bored.

This argument is frustrating argument for a number of reasons.

First, privacy by itself is valuable. Think about what you do when you are home alone and no one is watching. You sing in the shower. Would you do that if there were three people sitting on chairs outside your door listening? Probably not. You talk to the dog in a goofy dog voice. Would you do that if a stranger was following you around with a notebook recording everything you do? You go to the pharmacy to buy lotion for a embarrassing rash you have on your butt. Would you do that if the whole neighborhood was in the pharmacy watching to see what you bought?

These are all 'simple and honest' things. Good things even. But you would almost certainly change your behavior if you knew people were watching. There is a value in an of itself to not being watched. Being anonymous and unwatched is not a strange thing to desire. It is a good and normal thing that we all want whether we realize it or not.

Further, the argument that you don't care about privacy because you are not doing anything wrong is an assumption that those watching will always agree with your definition of wrong. And it assumes that they will be benevolent in their use of your data. It also presumes that you will always live under a just and good government.  These assumptions are all terrible assumptions.

First off, it is already well documented that Facebook, Twitter, and Google (that have access to almost everything you do) are reckless at best and abusive at worst when it comes to your data. Further, these organizations disagree with much of what you consider harmless - especially when it comes to political, religious, and social issues. In addition, their records can be accessed by psycho neighbors who are obsessed with your wife. Creepy dudes who are obsessed with your kids. What you post is being watched by people. And people are terrible.

But the bigger concern I have is with the government. Cyberstalkers and creeps can be arrested and thrown in jail. Corporations can be sued or driven out of business. But governments are the final authority. And the idea that we should never worry about our government abusing our privacy is insane. Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA is already harassing, violating rights, and abusing the data it gets. They are tracking citizens without warrant. They are pressuring and blackmailing.

And this is in America where we have a constitution and culture that is ostensibly free and fair with human rights and freedom of speech protections built into our entire legal code. Talk to people from other governments. China's government now has a social rating system based in part on what you do online. They limit the websites you can access. They limit what you can say online. And they arrest you if you step out of line. Think about the Chineese government, the North Korean government, or the Russian government having the sort of data you have given to google for the past 20 years. How many unauthorized political opinions have you espoused? How many times did you go outside of the recommended utility provider temperature range on your thermostat? How many times did you water your lawn for longer than maybe you should have? Ever tell any jokes that might be politically incorrect? Ever laugh at any? Ever do anything online that a hostile government might be able to twist or use against you?

But, I live in America, you say. I don't live in China. We use that data to track terrorists not un-PC comedians. Maybe. But for how long? The founders of our nation were absolutely concerned about the intentions of those in power. Our whole country was set up to prevent any one person or branch of government from having too much power. The president is checked by congress. Congress is checked by the government. And the judicial branch makes sure both are following the rules of the constitution. These checks were put in place for a reason.

GK Chesteron famously said that before you remove a fence, you should understand why it was put there. The fourth amendment of the constitution is supposed to protect us against unreasonable search and seizure. Why was this put at number four? Why of all the things that we could have listed in the constitution was a concern about the government being able to get into your private life without warrant so high? The answer is that the founders understood that a government that can search and seize whatever it wants is a government that has absolute power.

"Show me the man, and I'll show you the crime,” said Lavrentiy Beria, Soviet deputy premier to Stalin. Beria understood that, given enough information about someone, and you can certainly find something they have done that breaks a law or social norm. A government that can search everything that we do, can certainly find some reason to ruin any citizen they want to ruin. Do you report business miles at your work? Are you absolutely sure that they are accurate? What if the government went through every day you traveled for work and ensured that there were zero errors? And what if, upon finding an error, they put you in prison for tax fraud? Do  you own your own business? Did you use any of your business expenses for personal use - ever? Did you report that on your taxes?  It was probably a mistake or maybe not worth spending the time to determine the percentage but a government set on putting you in jail would not be so understanding. I could go on. Anyone who has ever done anything wrong (all of us) could be convicted by the government if you were to be a person who said or did anything that the government did not like.

And please do not say that you will never say or do anything that the government does not like. Because that is the opposite of freedom. If you need to figure out what the government wants from you and then do it in all areas of your life, you are not free. And you are pathetic if you think that is a good way to go through life. Freedom, if it is worth anything, is the ability to do and say things that the government does not like.

"Freedom, if it is worth anything, is the ability to do and say things that the government does not like."

And this is the value of the dark web. It provides freedom. It provides the option of saying and doing things with no one watching. This is the normal human experience. To take it away would be to destroy a fundamental part of who we are as human beings. We do not always have to use it (I don't usually although I do use Tor occasionally) but it is a wonderful option for a free people to have. Yes, monsters can use it too. But monsters use all sorts of good things for evil. We cannot just give up freedom to protect us from monsters. Because doing so would make the whole society monstrous. 


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