Written by Ellie Farrier & Colin Asher
Published on February 28, 2022

What is the dark web?

The dark web is a term used to describe websites that aren’t indexed by standard search engines. The dark web is made up of private networks that let you browse and engage anonymously online. Accessing dark web websites requires specific software or special network configurations.

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    Let’s take a closer look at the three main parts of the internet: the surface web, the deep web, and the dark web.

    The surface web makes up only about 10% of the entire internet, and includes anything you can find by entering terms into a search engine like Google. All the websites you visit that don’t require login credentials are part of the surface web.

    The deep web includes all internet content protected by passwords, authentication forms, and firewalls — like subscription services, banking information, and email accounts. Most of the web is actually the deep web, and whenever we enter login credentials and passwords to view web content, we’re accessing a part of the deep web.

    The dark web lies within the deep web and can be defined as the part of the deep web that not only isn’t indexed by search engines, but also requires specialized tools like Tor Browser to access. That special software keeps you anonymous and explains why it’s called the dark web. Dark web websites are used for both legal and illegal purposes.

    An iceberg illustration represents the differences between surface web, deep web, and dark web.A: The surface web contains publicly-accessible websites (online shops, search engines, and Youtube).
    B: The deep web includes sites that require logins (email accounts, online banking, cloud-storage sites).
    C: The dark web contains non-indexed sites that require special tools, such as Tor Browser, to access.

    What’s the difference between the deep web and the dark web?

    The difference between the deep web and the dark web is that the deep web refers to all web content that requires login credentials to access, while dark web content requires special software to access.

    The dark web is just one part of the deep web. Normal sites on the deep net (like your online banking site or email account) sit behind secure logins, paywalls, passwords, and authentication forms, but you don’t need any special software. By contrast, to access dark web websites, you need special tools or software like Tor Browser.

    The dark part of the dark web refers to its hidden configurations within the darknet, its emphasis on anonymity, and the private activity that happens there. The deep part of the deep web simply refers to the fact that you need passwords or other authentication to unlock it.

    Is it illegal to access the dark web?

    Depending on where you are, accessing the dark web might be illegal. But unless you engage in illegal activity on the dark web, you shouldn’t have to worry — at least in the US. Connecting to the dark web might draw unwelcome attention to your online activity, though, either from your ISP or your government.

    If you do access the dark web, use a VPN so that your connection is encrypted. And check your local laws to find out if accessing the dark web is legal. These laws may cover how to use a VPN, proxy server, or Tor Browser to connect to the internet. To learn more, check out our guide to the best countries to connect to a VPN server.

    While it’s not illegal in many places to simply get on the dark web, the dark web is used for some illegal purposes. Many things for sale on dark web marketplaces are illegal, like ransomware or other strains of malware, illicit drugs, weapons, and in some cases, even human organs.

    All kinds of illegal goods may be for sale on dark web marketplaces.All kinds of illegal goods may be for sale on dark web marketplaces.

    The Silk Road — one of the most famous dark web marketplaces — was known for these types of illegal items. Even though the website was shut down in 2013, the Silk Road’s founder, Ross Ulbricht, will spend the rest of his life in prison. The story of the Silk Road has been adapted into films, podcasts, and a book.

    The dark web gets a bad reputation as a haven for illegal activity, but there are in fact benefits of the Dark Web that are often overlooked.

    Is the dark web safe?

    It’s usually safe to access the dark web. But just like when you’re online normally, the risks increase depending on what you do while visiting dark web websites. It’s dangerous to buy or download anything from illegal marketplaces — the downloaded files may contain malware and the police can trace illegal purchases.

    How to access the dark web safely

    To safely access the dark web, use Tor Browser. Many Tor users also recommend the benefits of using a VPN, which provides maximum encryption and helps to hide your IP address and internet activity.

    Here’s how to get on the dark web safely:

    • Connect to a VPN to secure your encryption.

      Using a VPN on top of Tor browser (also known as Tor-over-VPN) solidifies your encryption and hides your activity from governments or ISPs who might be suspicious of Tor

    • Install Tor Browser.

      Tor itself is not the dark web — it’s a tool for accessing and browsing the dark web. Tor Browser can be downloaded and installed like any other browser. Download Tor from their official website to make sure you don’t install a scam version.

    • Surf the dark web using Tor.

      Privately access the same content you usually do — or go deeper. If you see the .onion extension in a URL (instead of .com, .net, etc.), that means it’s a dark web link. Sites with the .onion suffix aren’t indexed and searchable in standard search engines, even if you use Tor. But there are special directories to help you identify reliable dark web links.

    • Safeguard your personal data.

      Along with your encrypted connection, use anonymized usernames, email addresses, and cryptocurrency wallets for all transactions. To ensure your info stays off sketchy online marketplaces, get a data-monitoring tool that can help you identify if your private information is ever compromised in a leak.

    Benefits of the dark web

    The biggest benefit of the dark web is its extreme online privacy. Much of the dark web isn’t shady, illegal, or used for criminal purposes. Dark web browsing is often motivated simply by keeping your real identity secure and your online activity private.

    Browser fingerprinting and online tracking are virtually impossible when you’re connected to the dark web via Tor Browser. That means your browsing behavior and traffic patterns can’t be collected and used by third-party advertisers.

    Why does the dark web exist

    There are many legitimate reasons why the dark web exists: anonymous browsing, accessing research or other content without paywalls, discovering old or hard-to-find texts, and visiting special forums or social media websites.

    Privately connecting to the dark web helps to avoid censorship and to get around content blocks. Where access to popular social media or news sites is censored, dark web links of the same sites can help you stay informed.

    The New York Times and Facebook both have dark web versions. Whistleblowers, journalists, and activists also use dark web tools — especially if they live in countries with repressive political regimes. The dark web has been vital for social change and market decentralization.

    Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin are also widely traded on the dark web. These transactions occur without a centralized bank, which means no standard form of personal information is necessary.

    Types of threats on the dark web

    Though visiting the dark web is generally safe, you can still encounter threats. Browsing the dark web is riskier than browsing the surface web, because it’s usually difficult to assess website safety. And without experience deciphering trustworthy dark web sites, it’s easy to fall prey to dangerous cybercriminals.

    Here are some common types of threats on the dark web:

    • Malware: Most of the world’s malware is sold and distributed on the dark web. Before you browse the dark web, install a free malware removal tool to detect malware attacks and protect your system from infection.

    • Scams: Due to the unregulated transactions of the dark web, scams are everywhere. The same privacy that hides your activity on the dark web also makes it easy to carry out fraud. Stolen credit card numbers that result from data breaches often end up for sale on the dark web.

    • Spyware: Spyware like the XKEYSCORE spy program — famously revealed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden — is still a security issue for Tor users and visitors to the dark web.

    • Identity theft: Scammers on the dark web might trick you into hasty purchases or disclosing personal information so they can collect your data and use it against you. Encrypt your connection and use pseudonyms and cryptocurrency to avoid identity theft on the dark web.

    Threats are scattered all over the dark web, but there’s plenty you can do to protect yourself. Learn more about cybersecurity to boost your online protection.

    If your personal data or passwords ever end up for sale on a dark web marketplace, you’ll need a data-monitor tool to learn about the breach. AVG BreachGuard monitors dark web marketplaces and alerts you of any known leaks involving your personal accounts.

    The history of the dark web

    The dark web was created not long after the first message was sent in 1969 over the original internet, ARPANET. Covert networks — or darknets — emerged quickly to provide users with private networks to communicate on.

    In 1989, Ian Clarke launched the Freenet project, which aimed to allow anonymous online interactions at a time when internet anonymity was difficult to achieve. Soon after, the Tor network was created as a safe and hidden way for American intelligence operatives to communicate with each other across the globe.

    In 2008, the Tor Project launched the official Tor Browser, which is now the most popular way to access the dark web. The name Tor is short for The Onion Router, which refers to the way the TOR network routes internet activity through different overlay networks (like an onion’s layers) — each helping to encrypt the traffic between your computer and the internet.


    How does the dark web work?

    The dark web uses overlay networks (darknets), which require specific internet configurations and authorizations to access. Due to the layered encryption the dark web uses, traffic remains private and anonymous. The dark web consists of both smaller P2P (peer-to-peer) networks and larger networks, like Tor.

    How do I search for dark web websites?

    There are online repositories that include reliable dark web websites and keep the lists up to date. You can also search for dark web sites via specific search engines made for the dark web, like Ahmia, Torch, and DuckDuckGo. For more search tips, check out the subreddit r/deepweb.

    What can I buy on the dark web?

    You can buy a wide range of legal goods and services on dark web marketplaces. There are also some illegal things for sale, as detailed in the Dark Web Price Index 2021. When making purchases on the dark web, protect yourself by using anonymized account information and cryptocurrency whenever possible.

    Can I get on the dark web on mobile?

    Yes, there are ways to access the dark web on mobile, but generally, it’s not as safe as getting on the dark web with a PC. Because Android is designed to be an open system, it can be more vulnerable to the dangers of the dark web. And, you have less space and capabilities to install protective measures.

    How do I remove my information from the dark web?

    Removing your personal information from the dark web is difficult. Once the data is available on dark web marketplaces, it’s nearly impossible to track down the individuals responsible. To avoid theft of your personal data in the first place, use a data protection tool that helps you keep your data in your own hands.

    Keep your data in the dark — and off the dark web

    Regardless of why you may need to get on the dark web, protect your data and your connection as securely as possible. AVG Secure VPN will help you conceal your IP address, while encrypting your connection to keep all your activity private. If you ever need to download and use Tor, a VPN will help prevent your ISP or anyone else from knowing about it.

    Access the dark web safely with AVG Secure VPN

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    Access the dark web safely with AVG Secure VPN

    Free trial
    Ellie Farrier & Colin Asher