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The Dark Net

Inside the Digital Underworld

Jamie Bartlett

'pounding an equine cadaver to smithereens'

(London Times)

Using Tor, software that takes you into the deeper recesses of the web concealed from Google searches, you can always get what you want and the most popular pages are paedophile porn. Elsewhere, illegal drugs are sold with impressive efficiency and paid for with the stateless virtual currency Bitcoin. Self-harmers, anorexics, bulimics and the suicidal can meet, share tips, encourage each other. And, around the world, pale hackers known as cypherpunks meet to refine encryption methods in the name of absolute, unconditional freedom.

The internet amplifies. People always sold their bodies or did bad or dangerous things; now they can do more of them with more people. But the internet is also creative. One man in this book, Michael, started out looking at teenage girls on the net, then younger ones, until he was down among eight-year-olds. He now finds himself a sex offender. 'I have absolutely no idea how this happened,' he says. 'In fact, I don't understand me entirely.'

The internet-amplified self is changed beyond recognition. This is the big issue that lurks behind the stories in Jamie Bartlett’s thorough and assiduously researched account of the deviantly erotic, subversive and criminal aspects of web life: after the internet, who are we?

Dope smokers and porn con-sumers, obviously. Bartlett easily scored a tiny amount of cannabis, and his go-betweens made it a risk-free and altogether pleasant process. And his research into porn seems to have been amiable, at least in part. Once there was a moral panic about the sudden mass availability of hard porn; now the online pornorama (at least in its non-abusive naughtinesses) looks like the most harmless place in the dark net. Cam girl Vex seems like a sweet happy-go-lucky type; her stardom on is as much to do with her personality as her body. “Camming” is thought to be a $1bn per annum business, about a fifth of the porn business. Or it is an amiable hobby: 15% of British adults under 40 have appeared naked on a webcam.

On the other hand, camming can kill. Camwhores are usually teen-agers who strip for the benefit of users of the horrible website 4chan. Many are 'doxed' (identified) and their names passed to friends and parents. They are subjected to cyber-bullying and anybody who protests is dismissed as a 'moralfag'. Some kill themselves as a result.

Then, of course, there is child-abusive porn. A study of sexual search terms on the net found that 15% related to age and the most common specified ages were 13, 14 and 16. Does this mean the internet has increased paedophile activity? Obviously, yes in the sense of providing the porn and, I would add, yes in the sense of turning what might be a mild and controllable inclination into something much worse - as happened to Michael.

The same intensification of a desire may be happening on the suicide sites. These appeared almost as soon as the internet really got going. Now, Bartlett shows, they play a strangely ambiguous role, claiming neither to encourage nor discourage would-be suicides, but, rather, helping them through the process. This is, let's face it, vile, whatever the smiling defenders of the process say.

Almost equally vile are the anorexia and bulimia sites. Bartlett's account of what happens to girls sucked into these chat rooms is one of the creepiest things in the book. Eating dis-orders are terrible illnesses and yet, here, sufferers are encouraged to see them as the virtuous pursuit of a concentration-camp body.

The problem is that we who try to live in the real world of socially sustainable feelings about all this are, as far as the libertarian geeks are concerned, missing the point. To them, preserving the absolute freedom of the net is too important to let a few dead teenagers get in the way.

At one level this freedom is simply mindless. At another level, however, it is politically considered. Bartlett devotes a large proportion of his book to the linked phenomena of Bitcoin and encryption. The first is an online currency independent of nations or the banking system. The second is also an anti-nation process whereby unbreakable encryption is made available to all so that internet communications are free from government interference.

Anarchism - the politics of the spoilt and callow student - is behind all this. Tim May, an activist interviewed by Bartlett, admits the inevitable and welcome onset of stateless 'crypto-anarchy' will have a few downsides. 'We're about to see the burn-off of useless eaters,' he says, 'Approximately four to five billion people on our planet are essentially doomed: crypto is about making the world safe for the 1%.'

Such kids' stuff would not matter were it not for one fact that should make you very uncomfortable. What May believes is not that far from what many senior tech types believe: freeing a cyber-elite from the shackles of the state is a pretty mainstream aspiration in Silicon Valley.

Bartlett ends by saying the dark net is a mirror of society, the image is distorted but it is still recognisably us. After what we have just read, this is, sadly, a weak evasion. There is much more that could be said about the dark net, and, indeed, should be said if we are not to sink mindlessly into a con-dition of cyber-slavery, dazed by Chaturbate and tracked by Google. My question - after the internet, who are we? - can only be answered before that happens and time is running out.

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