You might think that you know your way around the internet. Asked a question and most of us could have a pretty good stab at it via a Google search, Yahoo or a trawl around Wikipedia. But in reality if these are your normal gateways to the net then you're missing a huge proportion of the websites that are actually online.
There are in fact two World Wide Webs, the normal 'surface' web sites which will all appear when you search through social networking sites or search engines - the second an underground, hidden web that you can't access through those means or with a standard web browser. They go by a variety of names such as the Darkweb, deep or hidden web. I've talked about one such hidden network before - here called the Freenet Network.
There is another huge network of information that I want to cover which we will call the Deep Web and it exists on the well known Anonymity network known as Tor.
Tor - The Anonymous Host
Tor was originally designed by the US Navy as means of protecting Government communication but now is freely available and used by people all across the world. It is basically a network of virtual tunnels which people use to surf the web anonymously by hiding the users IP address.
As you can see from this image, Tor creates an encrypted network using nodes which are actually other Tor users and servers. The majority of people use it for basic security and obscuring their IP address but it can equally be used to publish web sites and content on the Tor network anonymously.
It is this function that forms the infrastructure that holds the pages of the Deep Web. The sites don't exist on any traceable server, but on an anonymous cloud hosted by the millions of anonymous Tor nodes online. To access this underground network all you need is the Tor Browser and Tor extension of Firefox which you can get from the Tor Project site.
The Hidden Wiki
For many people the first time they stumble across this hidden web is through a small portal called The Hidden Wiki, this is one of the many directories compiled of some of the sites available on this hidden network. Here's the URL - kpvz7ki2v5agwt35.onion remember it won't work in a normal browser - you'll need to get onto Tor first (which only takes a minute from the above site) and use their browser.
But be careful, this isn't the fluffy, sanitized internet we all spend the vast majority of our time in. The Deep Web is completely uncensored and much of the material stored on here is illegal, immoral and just plain scary!
Here's a screenshot of part of the Hidden Wiki, which lists some of the commercial services available.
The anonymity of the network obviously attracts a certain type of client, here you can buy drugs, stolen credits cards or hire anyone from a hacker to a hitman. Want to buy the latest Facebook virus or a guide to growing and selling drugs - well you'll find them all on this network. To be honest a lot of the Deep Web is pretty unpleasant, it is anonymous networks like these where criminals, perverts and crooks hang out. You should be careful about what you click on as some of these sites are seriously nasty and around every corner you may find a hacker, pedophile or FBI agent!
However alongside the seedy and illegal are political activists, bloggers who would be imprisoned if they published on the normal web, whistle blowers and information idealists of all persuasions. They are also on there but sometimes it's difficult to find them through the plethora of porn, drugs and crooks. Believe me if you think you've seen some dodgy sites online - you've seen nothing like these!
So a bastion of free speech or a criminal marketplace?
Should it protected, policed or closed down?
There are many points of view and in fact the arguments mirror the ones around privacy and free speech on the normal web. The Deep Web possibly offers a glimpse of what an unfettered network would look like - take a look if you dare !!