At 14 I stood chest-deep in a cold swimming pool with a scuba tank strapped to my back. The mask covering most of my face, I plunged my head below the surface in an effort to learn what it feels like to be able to breathe under water, step one in training for scuba diving certification. I looked around the pool, seeing only the legs of the instructor before I lunged upward for air. As I wiped the chlorine from my eyes the instructor asked, "what happened? Why didn't you just breathe?"
I had grown up around water, learning to ski not long after learning to walk, but breathing under water just felt strange, unnatural.
Yesterday, some 15 years later, I had a similar experience. A popular social networking site was abuzz about the "deep web," this seemingly mythical internet underworld supposedly filled with drug lords, pedophiles, hackers and hit men. I spent much of my evening reading blogs and forums that explained that the websites that are searchable by search engines such as Google make up just 1% of the content on the Internet. But just out of plain sight, accessible only through certain browsers, is an internet wasteland, an underbelly to the web where old websites go to die. Because this part of the web is difficult to access, it has become a hub of vile and illegal activity, the Internet's subconscious.
Part of me wanted to believe that it was hyperbole. Surely there weren't actually child porn ads and forums for posting murder requests out in the open. But I, like most of society, was so very naive.
I work in technology, so I had to find out if this place was real. After all, it was a digital adventure, and hopefully it would show that the web is a wonderful place. I downloaded software that makes my on-line activity nearly impossible to track, a necessary step for accessing these sites. I configured my computer according to the strict instructions I had found in these forums so that I would be protected against hacking attempts. And with all of this software strapped to my proverbial back, I plunged into the deep web.
There is no way to find sites in the deep web, so everything is shared organically through forums. I accessed one such directory that was mentioned in one of the articles I had read. As I clicked just a couple links to see what this world contained, I had the same feeling I experienced underwater as a 14-year-old. I had been there too long, I couldn't breathe, and it just didn't feel right. With enough knowledge to prove that this world does indeed exist I closed my computer so I could compose myself.
My hands shook as I realized just how disgusting this world really is. Like most middle class Americans my world is sheltered, walled off by a genuine desire to believe that there is order, that people, for the most part, are good. But what I learned is that, given the opportunity to remain completely anonymous, people will participate in horrific things.
I believe in liberty as much as the next guy, but something has to be done. What are the governments of the world doing to regulate this massive underground market? Children are being abused because the images of that abuse are currency in the deep web, being traded for cash, drugs and services while the children suffer alone. Lives are being ruined, and no one is talking about it.
I urge you to stay away. I have purposely avoided using the names of programs or websites so as not to tempt you to go looking. Not only is most of what you will find illegal, it will leave you shaken.
Write to your Congress-person or a human rights organization and ask what is being done to combat this epidemic. As long as society pretends it doesn't exist, the more lives will be ruined.
For more coverage on this story, check out our recent article.