When you browse the Internet, check your email or watch a vlog on YouTube, you are accessing the surface web. Also known as the ‘visible web,’ this is content that anyone can access, particularly aided by search engines such as Google. Currently, 4% of the world wide web is considered surface web ( the equivalent of 8 billion pages). The remaining 96% of the worldwide web is the deep web (or invisible web). The deep web is any content that cannot be indexed or crawled by search engines. It is estimated that the deep web is 500 times the size of the surface web. The awkward family photos located on your Dropbox and the season two video files of House of Cards on Netflix would be hosted on the deep web, as they cannot be indexed by search engines.

The fact that the deep web is completely anonymous raises the question – is it legal to access the deep web, through anonymous browsers such as TOR?

Accessing the Deep Web

To access the Deep Web, a dedicated browser is required. The Onion Router (also known as Tor) is the most commonly used browser, followed by I2P and Freenet. As information on the deep web cannot be accessed directly, files are often hosted on a number of different servers through peer-to-peer networking. Consequently, this method of accessing data is often encrypted and makes it difficult to track where users are located and what information or data they are accessing.

So is it legal to use Tor and similar browsers? Yes – such dedicated browsers are used by the military, police, journalists and whistleblowers to maintain their privacy online. Tor is free software and operates by concealing the user’s IP address, which prevents any personal data or metadata from being collected about the user. Tor can also be downloaded as an add-on for surface web browsers.

Due to the anonymity that Tor and such private browsers offer, unfortunately, it is also a popular nesting ground for criminal and illegal activity. As such, weapons trading and drugs have appeared on marketplaces on the deep web. These illegal activities are classified to be in the ‘dark web’. In 2013, infamous online drugstore Silk Road was raided by the FBI. Silk Road operated on the dark web, where it accepted crypto currency Bitcoin. Over one billion dollars worth of goods were sold on Silk Road before it was taken down. While it is legal to access the deep web with a dedicated or anonymous browser, many websites on the deep web are not legal to visit.

Key Takeaways

While using a Tor browser may be used to access the deep web, there is no guarantee that you are safe and fully anonymous. There have been numerous instances of de-anonymising Tor users by the NSA in the US, and other government agencies. Due to the nature of the deep and dark web, Tor users can often hack other Tor users to find out more about them. So while it is legal to use, users should be cautious of the risks. Our privacy lawyers can answer any questions you have about the deep web and use of anonymous browsers.

Anthony Lieu
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