8 Surprising Facts About the Rise of the Dark Net


One of the truly indispensable works of nonfiction released in 2015, Jamie Bartlett’s The Dark Net charts the rise of the anonymous Internet — the “dark net” — and its many appendages. Bolstered by rising cryptographic technologies, a fair amount of intellectual hubris, and no shortage of libertarian pride, the trolls and programmers who “built” the dark net (or labored in its underbelly) can aggravate the sensibility of even the sanest person. Nevertheless, the story of how it all came to be is fascinating. Here, drawn from Bartlett’s book, are eight facts you may not have known about the rise of the dark net.

1. Much of the ideology behind cryptocurrencies (like Bitcoin) and the broader dark net was constructed by the libertarian cypherpunk groups formed in the 1990s.

One day in late 1992, retired businessman Tim May, mathematician Eric Hughes and computer scientist John Gilmore — the creator of alt.. — invited twenty of their favorite programmers and crytopographers to Hughes’ house in Oakland, California….At their first meeting, May set out his vision to the excited group of rebellious, ponytailed twenty- and thirty-somethings. If the government can’t monitor you, he argued, it can’t control you.

2. The “friendship” between trolls and cats dates back at least to Usenet in the 1990s.

The Meowers were infamous gang trolls. In 1997, a group of Harvard students had joined an abandoned Usenet group called alt.fan.karl-malden.nose to post updates about comings and goings on campus. Then they started to mildly flame other Usenet groups, in order, wrote one, “to rile up the stupid people.”

3. One of the first “ideas” of the dark net, stemming from the early to mid-1990s, was a terrifying Assassination Market.

Bell proposed that an organization be set up that would ask citizens to make anonymous digital cash donations to the prize pool of a public figure. The organization would award the prize to whoever correctly predicted that person’s death. This, argued Bell, wasn’t illegal, it was just a type of gambling. But here’s the ruse: if enough people were sufficiently angry with a particular individual — each anonymously contributing just a few dollars — the prize pool would become so large that someone would be incentivized to make a prediction and then fulfill it themselves…

4. The civil war over encryption — between cryptographers and the government — is decades old. And, in the 1970s, powerful encryption was already considered in terms of weaponry.

The United States had even classed powerful encryption as a “munition” in 1976 and made its export illegal without a license.

5. The current administration’s intervention in encryption and cryptography dates back to at least the early 1990s.

In 1990 the FBI launched an over-the-top crackdown on computer hackers, known as Operation Sundevil. This was swiftly followed, in early 1991, by a proposed piece of U.S. Senate legislation that would force electronics communications services providers to hand over people’s personal data. (The key clause, S.266, was pushed by the then chairman of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Joe Biden.)

6. Julian Assange has been moiling in the shadows of the Internet since the early 1990s.

The mailing list became a favorite watering hole for hundreds of talented computer programmers and hackers from all over the world…One of them was a programmer named “Proff,” who joined the cypherpunk mailing list in late 1993 or early 1994… “Proff,” it transpired, was a gifted young Australian programmer called Julian Assange. Although Assange was a libertarian, he did not share May’s elitism… Assange saw that crypto could be used for offence as well as defense. He believed that the anonymity crypto could provide would facilitate and encourage whistleblowers to expose state secrets.

7. The dark net is widely seen to facilitate new extremist “movements,” as well as countermovements meant to curtail them.

— “Lone Wolf Terrorism”:

The most infamous of this new breed of online extremists is Anders Behring Breivik, the right-wing extremist who killed seventy-seven people in a terrorist attack in Norway in July 2011…his talent for computer programming led him to start his own computer programming business…By early 2011 Breivik had thousands of Facebook friends and contributed to several online blogs, including the right-wing Norwegian site document.no, where he commented on a number of articles criticizing Islam…By June 2011, he’d farmed 8,000 “high quality” email addresses…

— New Nationalist Movements:

The English Defense League is characteristic of a new wave of loosely related nationalist movements growing across Europe. It’s ideology is difficult to pin down, but it combines a concern that large-scale immigration — especially from Muslim countries — is destroying national identity with a belief that the elite, out-of-touch liberal establishment don’t know or care what this is doing to ordinary people… The British National Party’s peak membership, in 2009 was roughly [14,000 members]. It took these parties years of concerted campaigning to accumulate these numbers. It took EDL months. It has local branches in every region of the country and demonstrations, protests and events take place every month as supporters flit easily between the online and offline world.

— Anti-Fascist Opponents (“Antifa”):

Far-right groups and antifa [anti-fascist opponents] used to clash on the street — they still do — but now the battle is mostly waged online. Antifa groups monitor every move the EDL and others like Paul make online, constantly watching key accounts, attempting to infiltrate their groups…

8. The FBI confiscated a crazy amount of money from Silk Road mastermind (and recent convict) Ross Ulbricht.

Ulbricht was a university graduate and self-confessed libertarian who, until his arrest, had been living under the name Joshua Terrey in a small shared flat near to the library. He had told his housemates that he was a currency trader, recently returned from Australia. The FBI alleges that they confiscated 144,000 Bitcoins (amounting to some $150 million) from Ulbricht’s computer.