- Weaving the Dark Web: Legitimacy on Freenet, Tor, and I2P by Robert Gehl
by Robert Gehl
Information Society Series. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018. 288 pp. $30.00 (hardcover)
If you search the term “Dark Web” you will find the cliché imagery of guys with dark hoodies practicing what seems like the black magic of computing. But is the Dark Web really that evil? Is it just the opposite of the web that we use every day? Shedding light on the monster under the bed, Robert Gehl shows that there are fifty shades of gray to describe the Dark Web and that in fact there is nothing dark about it at all. By doing so, Gehl follows a tradition of scholars such as Gabriella Coleman (hackers), Whitney Phillips (trolling), Jussi Parikka (computer viruses), and Aram Sinnreich (piracy) who examine and challenge our common understandings of deviant media and practices and reveal the power relations that they represent.
So first, what is the Dark Web? According to Gehl, it is “websites built with standard web technologies (HTML, CSS, server-side scripting languages, hosting software) that can be viewed with a standard web browser, [End Page 245] such as Firefox or Chrome, which is routed through special routing software packages” (5). These special routing systems turn both the people and the sites into anonymous publishers. This is contrary to the World Wide Web that most people use, which Gehl terms the Clear Web, which identifies people through IP addresses, cookies, digital fingerprinting, and other technologies. But this technical feature has far-reaching influences on the way people experience these technologies and, importantly, about how legitimacy is redrawn. And this is the core focus of the book: it is about constructing, negotiating, and redrawing boundaries around the legitimacy of power, architecture, and the use of technology. Mixing media theory with software studies, sociology, and science and technology studies, Gehl peels off layers of common understandings about the Dark Web while focusing on three types of legitimacy: violence, propriety, and authenticity. This is an important work not only for people who work in the tech industry and cyber security or regulation but also for internet researchers who often do not examine such technologies and so miss important aspects about the fringes of technology and why they have become fringe to the Clear Web.
Instead of focusing on regulators, journalists, or other key figures in society and how they frame the Dark Web, Gehl chose to examine the users from within three networks: Freenet, Tor, and I2P. Some of his insights have a lot of similarities with the field of subcultures and the way they define themselves and their communities by doing boundary work between the mainstream and the underground. For example, in chapter 6, which covers the Dark Web’s social media Galaxy 2, we see how the common rules of gathering friends, likes, and, most importantly, an increased attention to the self (e.g., via selfies) are turned around with oppositional culture capital such as pseudonyms and a strict approach toward less sharing. However, although these communities try to create alternative rules, Gehl shows that some cultural practices of discrimination, especially toward young women, persist even in these spaces. As he says, “Practices of inclusion and exclusion are incredibly important on the Dark Web” (37), and many times these are replicated from the Clear Web whereby women get harassed and are asked to share more information to be seen as legitimate.
In chapter 4 Gehl tackles the new post–Silk Road Dark Web markets, which he calls operation security (OPSEC). This new generation distances themselves from communities-from-markets that were manifested in the era of Silk Road and inspired by Agorists (radical liberals who see human freedom in markets). OPSEC represents a rebellion against communities, an individualistic approach that draws from military logic and exhibits paranoid sociality. It is interesting to see how the same people [End Page 246] who wanted to escape the violence of the state by establishing new models for social organization also enact violence toward young women and...