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Category: Digital Marketing, Technology

Understanding Darknet vs. Deep Web, and Why it Matters for Marketers

The darknet is a scary place. If you believe pop culture references in movies, TV shows, and books, the darknet is home to all types of individuals you would probably want to avoid. Here, hackers threaten the privacy and livelihood of individuals and corporations alike, while drug dealers sell their wares and other criminals plan out their actions.

The deep web is a necessary invention. Citizens of countries, that do not allow them to freely access the internet, use it as a connection to the world, while privacy-fearing individuals in industrialized countries visit to browse the internet in peace.

In reality, both of the above statement are true—and false. The dark web and the deep web may have gained notoriety through pop culture references and our imagination, but both have begun to occupy a space in our digital environment whose normalcy might surprise you. Join us for a deep dive into these concepts, their differences, and why it all matters to marketers today.

The Surprising Banality of the Deep Web

We will begin with an examination of the deep web. Its definition is surprisingly simple: this entity is comprised of all websites not indexed or crawled by a search engine.

As it turns out, search engines like Google or Facebook only scratch the surface of available online content. While Google indexes more than 30 trillion individual web pages for potential search results, CNN estimates that these pages comprise only 1% of the entirety of the internet. The rest comprises what we call the deep web.

Information that cannot easily be found using common web search methods automatically sounds nebulous. But in fact, the vast majority of this ‘deep’ content is absolutely legitimate. It includes databases and academic journals, which generate dynamic results pages based on individual search queries. 54% of the world’s websites are estimated to be databases.

Another part of the deep web you probably would not consider to be dangerous is any page that requires a login and houses private information. You are probably not surprised to hear that your online banking or PayPal information, for example, is not searchable or accessible via search engines. These private pages, which also include company intranets, comprise about 13% of the world’s internet pages.

Academic journals and databases are far from scary. Websites holding your private information should not be publicly available. So what makes the deep web such as scary proposition? The answer to that question brings us to the darknet.

Demystifying the Darknet

The small portion of the darknet that goes beyond databases, academic journals, and private/gated content is considered the dark web. Its content is the stuff of legends. As mentioned above, it is thought to be the meeting place for hackers, drug deals, and other criminal activity around the world.

The darknet is not available from a common browser. Rather, it is a collection of special websites, with the domain name .onion, that requires special software called Tor for access. Tor stands for The Onion Router, a process debuted by the U.S. Navy in 2002 to communicate anonymously. Its name alludes to the way in which users achieve anonymity, as their data is routed through enough layers (like an onion) to become nearly untraceable.

This anonymity has indeed made the darknet a meeting place for criminal activity. Last year’s infamous Ashley Madison hack, which revealed the private information of hundreds of thousands users on the website for cheating spouses, was released on an .onion domain. But in fact, even this legendary dark space may not be as scary as you think.

To begin, only between 7,000 and 30,000 sites with an .onion domain, or 0.03% of the internet, exist on the darknet today. And these sites have become so well-known to government agencies that they are monitored heavily enough for criminal activity to be minimal.

The darknet’s most notorious black market, The Silk Road, has recently been forced to shut down operations. According to one security expert,

I’ve never considered the darknet to be much of a threat. Most of the crime forums and sites that I spend time on are on the regular Internet, but many also have darknet versions in case their normal URLs go down. I’m not aware of any unique threats that exist on the darknet that don’t also exist on the regular Internet.

Tor, as it turns out, is much more than just a shadowy software used to access criminal websites. It also enables its users to access the regular internet through added security measures, and in fact, the browser sees most of its activity on these everyday sites. The nonprofit behind the software estimates that only 1.5% of its traffic goes to an .onion domain.

Considering these pieces of evidence, even the darknet is a much less scary place than popular culture often implies. But, if the activity itself is innocent, and the space is heavily monitored, why do users care to such an extent about their privacy? The answer to this question leads us to its relevance for marketers.

Why Should Marketers Care?

Privacy is becoming an increasing concern in online marketing. Look no further than last year’s debate—and panic—about the rapid rise in ad blockers for proof that consumers have begun to grow weary of the degree to which companies can harness their private information.

The Edward Snowden scandal further showed that the general public is beginning to care about their privacy. Meanwhile, in Europe, Google lost a landmark case and now has to grant user’s requests to remove their name and websites from search indexing. Known as the Right to be Forgotten, the case has resulted in more than 340,000 individuals sending requests to Google,  essentially volunteering to become a part of the deep web instead.

Throughout the Western world, consumers are taking steps to ensure and maintain their digital privacy. In other parts of the world, they don’t have much of a choice. China, for example, significantly limits internet access for its citizens. Getting informed about the world by reading international websites means hiding your browsing history, for which Tor is a perfect tool.

And that’s where marketing enters the equation. Digital marketers have long struggled to reach international consumers in countries that restrict internet access. The darknet offers an opportunity to reach out to these consumers, who will be happy about the connection with international organizations.

Even within Europe and the United States, the darknet offers an opportunity to reconnect with consumers. Legitimate organizations, like Facebook and Adland, have expanded into the darknet to ease privacy concerns of users who want to use their services, without the necessary data collection that comes with it.

In addition, a recent article in the American Marketing Association points out an important consideration:

Many of the fears marketers have about the Dark Web are mirrored in consumers’ fear of data collection. Marketers should counter the appeal of the darknet by starting a dialogue about data collection and why it can be beneficial.

In other words, even marketers, hesitant to begin engaging in the darknet, can use its appeal as an impetus to better understand their consumers. Users gravitate toward services like Tor because it protects their privacy. Educating them about the benefits of data collection—how it improves user experience, for example—can ease their worries and increase your company’s credibility.

Pop culture, and articles like this one, have made it easy to think of the darknet as a bogeyman, the digital equivalent of the dark alley you should avoid at all times. But in reality, its mere existence points to larger privacy concerns and offers a way for marketers to connect with individuals who would be otherwise inaccessible.

As such, it is a fascinating case study on less-known parts of the internet, and may offer a glimpse into the future of digital marketing beyond established practices. To learn more about the darknet and other marketing opportunities, contact us.

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