The Internet is often referred to as a modern day version of the Wild West, but in today's world of traceable IP addresses, online advertisers that keep track of every click, and NSA surveillance, that old trope no longer applies. The notion that the Internet was once a bastion for freedom has been superseded, replaced by privacy concerns.

But that's only the case for the parts of the Internet that most of us use: the world of Google, Bing, Yahoo, Facebook, and all the other sites that we navigate the Web with. This is the so-called "Surface Web," that portion of the World Wide Web that is indexable by conventional search engines. There is a deeper, darker section of the Internet, however, that still exists underneath the part we're all familiar with, for which the Wild West analogy still applies.

It's called the Darknet, an underground peer-to-peer network within the Deep Web, or Invisible Web, that remains inaccessible to standard search engines. Because browsing in the Darknet is anonymous (thanks to help from specially designed anonymizing software), it has become a sanctuary for rogues, hackers, deviants, and all varieties of criminal dissidents.

But before the image of digital gunslingers coalescing at virtual high noon takes complete hold of your imagination, understand that the Darknet is not all mischief and anarchy. This autonomous Internet underbelly is also an asylum for freedom and expression, a place where political activists can organize, and whistleblowers can safely blow their whistles. The Arab Spring, for instance, may not have been possible without the Darknet. The New Yorker, along with many other major media outlets, host locations on the Darknet that allow sources to share information anonymously.

Because so many hackers and scammers patrol the Darknet, it is not advised that you attempt to explore it ill-prepared. But not to worry — you're also not likely to stumble upon the Darknet accidentally. It's the sort of place that you can only find if you know what you're looking for. 

There is a thorough introduction to the world of the Darknet published at PC World, where you can also learn about how to begin delving into this clandestine world yourself, if you dare. Again, though the Darknet can be a sketchy place, you're unlikely to actually encounter any trouble there unless you're looking for it. Rather, it can provide a cornucopia of useful services that simply can't be found on the Surface Web — secure messaging and file-sharing tools, libraries of political literature that would otherwise be silenced, anonymous boards dedicated to intelligent debate, etc. True Internet freedom still exists, if you're savvy enough to learn how to navigate it.

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Bryan Nelson ( @@brynelson ) writes about everything from environmental problems here on Earth to big questions in space.

What is the Darknet?
Hidden, anonymous underbelly to the Internet is home to rogues, political activists, criminals and hackers, and can't be found using search engines.