Political affordances of the internet and the privacy divide

The internet has been turned into a disclosing machine. Anonymous communication is rare and difficult to achieve. Digital worlds are characterised by affordances, the technological qualities that enable and promote some kinds of human action and which hinder or disable others. Some of these qualities are so fundamental we scarcely are aware of them. One is the tendency of digital platforms to define, identify and label their users. It is a capacity fundamental to their business model. As well as enabling a cash for clicks advertising business it also provides unprecedented technological scope for mass surveillance and digital fingerprinting (Linder, 2019). The surveillant assemblage, as Haggerty and Ericson (2000) coin it, is the melding of different data types such as video, audio, location data and social media streams with automatic analysis and prioritisation in order to identify threats. Private companies compete to offer these services to police, military and private security agencies (Aas, 2011). These qualities are not natural outgrowths of what the internet is but are actively produced according to the economic, social and political priorities that are set by governing forces in our societies. Just as these features are made so they can be contested and disrupted through rival assemblages. One of these is the Tor darknet, a combination of technologies, services and infrastructures that limits monitoring and promotes anonymity (Dingledine et al., 2004).

A darknet redistributes visibility. Facebook and Instagram for example operate as self-contained private networks. Users are visible to Meta and its advertisers, to each other with some limits, but invisible to google or other web search engines. Darknets like Tor (henceforth ‘the darknet’), the focus of this post, shift the disclosure locus of control from the designed-in affordances of the platform to the decisions of the user. The darknet is one of several community supported, technical solutions to the surveilling internet (Collier, 2020). It is intended to bypass censorship and contribute to a sphere of privacy and autonomy. Users often see it as a valued place of privacy and anonymity (Mirea et al., 2019).

Tor is a routing system which encrypts connection data in order to disrupt what is called traffic analysis. Doing so makes it difficult for a third party to tell who is connecting from where. Effectively it means an internet user can browse websites and send messages without being easily traced. The design of Tor allows for relatively fast communication compared to for example Freenet, a peer-to-peer darknet. Tor is relatively easily accessible and useable. To connect to the Tor network a user just has to download the Tor Browser from the Tor foundation (see Web Resources section). The Tor Browser is built on Mozilla Firefox so its interface is familiar to web users. It is designed to work with the user’s mental model of how a web browser functions (Perry et al., 2018). When the user launches the browser it seeks to connect to a node on the Tor network, called a relay.  A start or guard relay, a connecting or middle relay, and a final or exit relay makeup a complete circuit. The network routes and encrypts data packets between relays to reduce the risk of identification. Nodes are hosted by volunteers. The code on which the network runs is maintained by the Tor Project’s developers and by a wider community.

Tor allows users to browse the web and connect to services. It has a significant second function also. It allows services to connect directly through its network, called onion or location-hidden services. Onion services allow a server to be connected without its location being revealed. Users can set up web services without the host’s IP address being known. The investigative journalism institution ProPublica and the privacy focused email service Protonmail both offer onion services along with their normal web sites, as does Facebook. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) provides an onion mirror for its international news to help citizens of authoritarian countries. These services protect users and provide an anonymous route to using them. It is possible to combine an onion service with a payment system using cryptocurrency. That allows for illicit services called ‘cryptomarkets’ to be offered (Martin, 2014). The focus of much research on the darknet is about this criminogenic aspect, in part because it offers a place where illicit markets can be researched with relative ease.

What kind of questions can be asked of and with the darknet

Research questions can be asked about Tor, and of Tor. Tor is part of a much wider movement for online anonymity and privacy. As Collier (2021) shows, Tor is itself a place where the meaning of privacy is contested. It has a fascinating history having emerged from a collaboration between the US Naval Research Laboratory and the Free Haven Project. The development and evolution of Tor can be used to trace shifting political and ethical debates about privacy and autonomy and the degree to which social values can be embedded in infrastructure (Bancroft and Scott Reid, 2017).

Onion services are a social sphere in themselves. For example, The Hub hosts Reddit like discussions about the darknet itself, and about various social and political issues.

The cryptomarkets are sites of illicit exchange and also typically host discussion forums that focus on drug quality, trust and reliability of the illicit markets, and issues like harm reduction. As the markets evolve new social formations emerge. For example, Hydra is the predominant cryptomarket operating in the Russian and post-Soviet space. Cryptomarkets focused on Western nations separate drug selling from drug delivery which is mostly carried out through the postal system. Hydra has a hybrid system of dead drops in operation and is a far more integrated business than other cryptomarkets. The historical evolution and adaption of criminal business models can be studied in its context through examining different cryptomarkets and their history. National differences can be explored as can the specific state formations they operate in. Using this approach criminological models and concepts regarding criminal organisation and exchange can be tested.

The demographics of who uses the darknet and how they come to use it is a set of questions which link to themes of the digital divide, digital literacy and varying degrees of online censorship and repression throughout the work. As the world becomes more authoritarian data on darknet usage can provide one metric of shifting repression and political activism. It can also be used to examine the privacy divide. Much like the digital divide, the privacy divide means that the resources to protect one’s own privacy are very unevenly distributed. Varied technological, economic and cultural resources make a significant difference to the legal and social exposure of digital citizens. The ability to protect oneself against public shaming and cancellation and to recover from reputational damage matter alongside legal liability.

 

 

Author: Angus Bancroft

I'm a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh department of Sociology, studying illicit drug use, illicit markets and various shades of cyber crime. Email angus.bancroft@ed.ac.uk Tweet @angusbancroft

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