People often associate anonymous or invisible internet with illegal practices. However, a new study has shown that most of the activity that takes place in this environment is not hidden.
The Tor project is a popular system that allows you to access the web anonymously. Despite being in existence for almost two decades, this anonymity network remains a constant source of controversy.
Critics of Tor argue that the anonymity provided by the service protects criminals who distribute child abuse content, traffic illegal drugs, and engage in other illicit activities. Those who defend it affirm that it is vital to protect the privacy online, in addition to allowing to bypass the censorship on the Internet, particularly in countries with human rights issues.
A new study attempted to calculate the potential benefits and harms of this anonymity network. After monitoring a small sample – about 1% – of Tor’s input nodes over a period of just under eight months, the scientists found that only a small fraction of users globally use Tor for hidden purposes.
The data collected revealed that the majority of Tor users use the system to anonymously access regular pages on the so-called surface web or ‘clean’ internet, that is, websites that can be visited by anyone. Only 6.7% of Internet users use the service to access the deep web network, that is, to visit hidden pages that are not indexed by search engines.
These users, however, are not evenly distributed around the globe. In countries considered “not free”, access to hidden services was only 4.8%, while in “free” countries, the proportion jumped to 7.8%. To determine the freedom index in the countries, the researchers relied on data provided by the international organization Freedom House.
“The Tor anonymity network can be used for both licit and illicit purposes. Our results provide a clear, if probabilistic, estimation of the extent to which users of Tor engage in either form of activity. Generally, users of Tor in politically “free” countries are significantly more likely to be using the network in likely illicit ways”the study authors wrote.
The researchers acknowledge, however, that their estimates are not perfect. This is partly because they are based on the unproven assumption that the vast majority of sites on the deep web provide illegal content or services. The study contends, however, that the findings may be useful to lawmakers trying to assess the benefits provided by Tor relative to the harms it creates.
From the anonymous network, it was not long before the findings and assumptions were questioned. Isabela Bagueros, executive director of the Tor Project, considered that calling access to the deep web ‘illegal’ “is a generalization that demonizes people and organizations that choose a technology that allows them to protect their privacy and bypass censorship.”
“In a world of increasing surveillance capitalism and internet censorship, online privacy is necessary for many of us to exercise our human rights to freely access information, share our ideas, and communicate with one another”said Bagueros.