Using the Dark Web in Libraries | Field Reports

The dark web offers something that few online platforms can or will: a very high level of anonymity. Many people use the dark web for legitimate, anonymous information seeking purposes: those who live in high-censorship countries, who identify as transgender, and who are undocumented immigrants. These people have a right to access information and need privacy protections.

Brady Lund head shotWhen advocates discuss the "dark web," they are referring to the anonymity it provides (leaving others in the dark about your searching). However, for many people, the term has taken on a different meaning entirely. One side of the story of the dark web, while true in some regards, is fraught with sensationalism, leading some to believe that it is only useful for criminal activity. Launched in February 2011, the Silk Road was a dark web site that sold tens of millions of dollars in illegal drugs and weapons, and is likely the genesis of this “evil” dark web myth. But this site was shut down by FBI and Interpol raids (using traditional investigative methods) in 2013.

On the other hand, the dark web offers something that few online platforms can or will: a very high level of anonymity. Many people use the dark web for legitimate, anonymous information seeking purposes: those who live in high-censorship countries, who identify as transgender, and who are undocumented immigrants. These people have a right to access information and need privacy protections.

The dark web is easy to access. The most popular dark web platform, Tor, can be accessed simply by visiting its website and clicking the “download Tor” button. Tor operates within a Firefox browser shell, offering patrons a familiar experience. Many people think it is illegal to access a dark web platform like Tor. This is not the case in the United States, Canada, or Western Europe. In fact, the code for Tor was released in 2004 by a governmental agency, the Naval Research Laboratory. It is illegal to access illegal content or conduct illegal online transactions using Tor, just as it is illegal to do the same using Google Chrome.

What can you access on a dark web platform like Tor? The same websites you access on any browser, but with additional privacy protections secured by routing internet access through a relay of computer servers. This process of routing often slows the loading speed of websites, so it is difficult to stream content on Tor, but it does not place a significant additional burden on a library’s bandwidth. Want to visit libraryjournal.com? No problem—type it into Tor's address bar as with any browser.

Users can also access some special Onion sites, which use the .onion suffix as opposed to .com and which can only be accessed by using the Tor browser. They are created by entities independent of the creators of Tor and include both legitimate sites (such as Facebook: facebookcorewwwi.onion; the New York Times: nytimes3xbfgragh.onion; Freedom of the Press Foundation: freepress3xxs3hk.onion; and the Tor Archive: archivecaslytosk.onion), and illegal sites.

Why are dark web platforms like Tor important to libraries? Essentially, these platforms were designed with many of the same objectives and core values as the profession of librarianship—privacy, intellectual freedom, and information access. As described in Tor's mission statement, the platform aims “To advance human rights and freedoms by creating and deploying free and open source anonymity and privacy technologies, supporting their unrestricted availability and use, and furthering their scientific and popular understanding." Library administrators should consider providing access to these platforms, and how they might extend the mission of their organizations.

Libraries that are interested in investigating the dark web further need not do so alone. Tor provides guidance and information to libraries through the Library Freedom Project (LFP). LFP has helped several libraries in the United States provide patrons with access to Tor in a safe and legal manner.


Brady Lund is a Library and Information Management PhD candidate at Emporia State University, KS, and coauthor of Casting Light on the Dark Web: A Guide for Safe Exploration (Rowman).

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