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The darknet refers to networks that are not indexed by search engines such as Google, Yahoo or Bing. These are networks that are only available to a select group of people and not to the general internet public, and only accessible via authorization, specific software and configurations. This includes harmless places such as academic databases and corporate sites, as well as those with shadier subjects such as black markets, fetish communities, and hacking and piracy.
The darknet is an overlay network to the internet that can only be accessed by specialized software, configurations and special authorizations, and often makes use of non-standard communication protocols in order for it to be deliberately inaccessible by the internet.
The term was originally coined in the 1970s to refer to computer networks that were isolated from the ARPANET for obvious security reasons. These darknets were able to receive communication from the ARPANET but were inaccessible and invisible in network lists and would disregard pings and other regular inquiries.
The term gained popular acceptance after the publication of the paper “The Darknet and the Future of Content Distribution” in 2002. In this paper, four Microsoft employees (Biddle, England, Peinado and Willman) argued that the darknet’s presence is the primary hindrance to the development of workable DRM technologies because of the prospect of inevitable copyright infringement.
In popular culture, the meaning of darknet became synonymous to that of the dark web, that part of the internet that cannot normally be visited with run-of-the-mill web browsers; it needs special browsers like TOR (The Onion Router), Freenet or I2P. Sites here are not indexed by search engines because they are simply not accessible to them. For example, academic databases are only available to faculty and students, and corporate networks are only available to employees. Peer-to-peer networks and self-hosted websites are also part of the darknet. It is difficult to track users in the darknet and so it became a haven for free speech and expression, especially in countries where the internet is heavily policed and blocked.
Users of this darknet are truly anonymous, and it is this anonymity that attracted the criminal element to it. Here they are free to conduct their business and express themselves without fear of repercussion. It has become a haven for criminals selling drugs and guns, human trafficking and scamming.