Today, over 65,000 unique URLs ending with .onion exist on the Tor network.A 2018 study by computer security firm Hyperion Gray catalogued about 10percent of these sites and found that the most prevalent functionsfacilitate communication via forums, chat rooms, and file and image hosts,as well as commerce via marketplaces. These functional roles, particularlyrelated to communication, support many uses that are considered legal andlegitimate in free societies. Furthermore, a 2016 study by research firmTerbium Labs analyzing 400 randomly selected .onion sites suggests thatover half of all domains on the dark web are in fact legal.
For individuals living under oppressive regimes that block large parts ofthe internet or punish political dissent, the dark web is a lifeline thatprovides access to information and protection from persecution. In freersocieties, it can be a critical whistle-blowing and communication tool thatshields people from retribution or judgment in the workplace or community.Alternatively, it can simply deliver privacy and anonymity for those waryof how corporations and governments are tracking, using, and potentiallymonetizing their data. Today, many organizations maintain a hidden websiteon Tor, including nearly every major newspaper, Facebook, and even the USCentral Intelligence Agency (CIA). This is because a Tor websitedemonstrates a (sometimes symbolic) commitment to privacy. The New York Times and the CIA, for example, are both hoping tofacilitate communication with virtual walk-ins who can provide sensitiveinformation.
Authoritarian regimes will continue efforts to block access to the dark weband the threats to legitimacy that it poses by enabling dissidents andactivists. Faced with this threat, the natural reflex of liberal civilsocieties will be to advocate that Tor remain unmonitored and unpoliced toprotect free expression and privacy. The reality of the dark web is muchmore complicated, requiring a nuanced approach from supervisors and lawenforcement agencies to thwart activities that are considered illegal andimmoral in free societies, all the while protecting the very real benefitsof an anonymized network.
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