Ian Clarke, Oskar Sandberg, Brandon Wiley, and Theodore W. Hong published a paper outlining Freenet in 2001. However, the project can be traced back to Clarke's these project at the University of Edinburgh in the summer of 1999. The paper describes the peer-to-peer network as:
an adaptive peer-to-peer network application that permits the publication, replication, and retrieval of data while protecting the anonymity of both authors and readers. Freenet operates as a network of identical nodes that collectively pool their storage space to store data files and cooperate to route requests to the most likely physical location of data. No broadcast search or centralized location index is employed. Files are referred to in a location-independent manner, and are dynamically replicated in locations near requestors and deleted from locations where there is no interest. It is infeasible to discover the true origin or destination of a file passing through the network, and difficult for a node operator to determine or be held responsible for the actual physical contents of her own node.
Freenet servers work in much the same way as other hidden services, and even references the Onion routing paper by Goldschlag, Reed, and Syverson, on which Tor is based.
The primary of focus of Freenet is censorship resistance, however, it is one among five:
- Anonymity for both producers and consumers of information
- Deniability for storers of information
- Resistance to attempts by third parties to deny access to information
- Efficient dynamic storage and routing of information
- Decentralization of all network functions
The 3rd item is essentially what is meant by censorship resistance.
Tor stands for "the Onion Router." It is based on the work several years earlier by Paul Syverson, Michael G. Reed and David Goldschlag, who did their research under the US Naval Research Laboratory with the intention of protecting the communications of US agents abroad. The project also received a boost from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the same who had decades before developed the Internet.
In concert with paper author Syverson, who is a mathematician by trade, Roger Dingledine and Nick Mathewson released an initial, alpha version of the Tor software in September, 2002. By 2004, the Navy open-sourced the software and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital privacy advocacy organization at its core, began funding Dingledine and Mathewson to continue development.
Later, a non-profit organization was established to continue the development of Tor, which by now was used far more in other enterprises than the intelligence services. As the Internet increasingly became a staple around the world, so too did censorship. Getting around national firewalls to access information is an example of how Tor can be used, but it mostly focuses on preventing an attacker from discovering the true IP address of the user. It works by relaying the traffic through several routers and obfuscating traffic.
The dark web is useful in criminal enterprise thanks to its extreme anonymity and difficulty to trace. It would be wrong to say that dark web traffic can never be traced, but it is certainly much more difficult than surface web or clear net traffic.
The Silk Road
One of the most famous cases of a criminal enterprise on the dark web is the Silk Road, which was made possible through a later invention, Bitcoin. The Silk Road was allegedly started by Ross Ulbricht, an ardent idealist who believes that prohibiting the sale of goods, such as drugs, is a societal ill, in 2011. Ulbricht reported made hundreds of millions of dollars in bitcoins through the fees he charged to vendors on the Silk Road.
Gradually, the Silk Road grew into a major enterprise, moving Cartel-level amounts of drugs via ordinary postal services. While people were occasionally caught, the operation continued relatively unmolested until October, 2013, when Ulbricht was arrested in San Francisco and the site was shut down.
Unlike other dark net markets, perhaps for pragmatic purposes, Ulbricht, who went as the Dread Pirate Roberts on the site, did not allow the sale of guns, child pornography, or stolen goods. Despite this, Ulbricht eventually received a life sentence in the courtroom of Judge Katharine Forrest in New York City federal court.
A study by Gareth Owen at the University of Portsmouth in December, 2014, found that the most commonly requested type of content on Tor was child pornography, which is called "hard candy" in the parlance of dark web pornographer traffickers. The unfortunate side effect of the dark web is that censorship resistance is censorship resistant, which is to say that the technology enables the darkest elements of the human mind as much as it enables those simply trying to evade repressive regimes.
In January, 2015, Timothy DeFoggi, a cybersecurity chief with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services was convicted on child pornography charges connected to the dark web. Along with Aaron McGrath and three others, DeFoggi was arrested on charges of possessing child pornography and being associated with an underground ring that trafficked in it via the dark web. He was reportedly downloading child pornography when they arrested him at his home in 2013.
According to the Owen study, darknet markets are the second highest purpose of Tor traffic. These markets at one time included the Silk Road, but after its fall, several have risen to fill its place, including Agora and Evolution. The fundamental difference between these markets and others is that there is a much wider array of goods for sale. It's common place to buy and sell illegal drugs, website credentials, credit cards, counterfeit money and goods, as well as the things you'd find somewhere like eBay, such as books, watches, clothing, and electronics. These sites almost all exclusively use Bitcoin to transact in, which provides them a degree of untraceability as well as guarantee.