The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld by Jamie Bartlett

The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld BY Jamie Bartlett. Melville House. Hardcover, 320 pages. $27.
The cover of The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld

“You are going to die and I am the one who is going to kill you. I promise you this.” Slate writer Amanda Hess received this tweet from the charmingly named user “headlessfemalepig.” She wrote about the experience—and, more generally, about the hazards of being a woman online—for Pacific Standard in early 2014. In that article, for which she later won a National Magazine Award, she details some of the exhausting consequences of online harassment: “Threats of rape, death, and stalking can overpower our emotional bandwidth, take up our time, and cost us money through legal fees, online protection services, and missed wages.” Hess’s piece provides a fine counterpoint to Jamie Bartlett’s The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld, for it echoes and reinforces a sub rosa narrative thread that runs through Bartlett’s exploration of the less savory bits of the web: When things go bad online, it is often women who are harmed, and men who do the harming.

The dark net (encrypted sites, or those accessible only via an anonymous routing network like Tor) is able to function largely because its users believe they are anonymous. (Likewise the darker corners of the surface web: On sites like Reddit, 4Chan, or even the comments sections of, say, a Guardian article, registering as a user requires no more than a dummy email account and a fake name.) This sense that their online lives are separate from the real world results in a certain kind of dissociation, as Bartlett writes, citing the work of psychologist John Suler: “A screen allows you . . . to create fictitious identities and alternative realities, in which social restrictions, responsibilities and norms do not apply: as if the online space is somehow separate and different.” But, of course, the online space is not separate and different, and the anonymity promised by fake identities and masked IP addresses is imperfect. The most troubling moments in Bartlett’s book are those in which the online world impinges on the real one, particularly when a user is unmasked, or “doxxed,” linking her online identity to the one she has built offline. (Doxxing can assume a political valence, but most of those doxxed by trolls, “for the lulz,” seem to be female.) Those moments when what she has done in “secret” is revealed: first to family, friends, co-workers, and then to anyone who knows her name and can work a search engine.

Bartlett’s investigations take him to the Hidden Wiki (an index of illicit websites that are accessible only on a Tor browser), where he finds, in two mouse clicks, a link to a child pornography site. He visits dark net markets, where he purchases marijuana (the customer service, he reports, is excellent). He travels to Calafou, “an experiment in cooperative living . . . outside the capitalist system,” and interviews programmers working on the “Dark Wallet,” which will allow for more secure Bitcoin transactions. He speaks to “camgirls,” and to adolescents whose self-destructive behaviors have been reinforced on “pro-ana” (pro anorexia) sites. Throughout, he tracks the shifting boundaries between life on and off the Internet: Had he clicked on the link to the child pornography site, he would have seen images of actual minors being violated, and could have faced actual legal consequences; the marijuana he orders online shows up at the front door of his real apartment; the Dark Wallet is being created by men sitting on real sofas; the camgirls work from their own bedrooms. For Bartlett the permeability of these boundaries is an intriguing—if disquieting—philosophical problem. For many women, it has devastating consequences.

The men Bartlett interviews fall largely into two camps. There are those who seem surprisingly blasé about what being anonymous allows them to get away with—even when it is repellent or illegal. Michael, who was “convicted of possessing almost 3,000 indecent images of children on his computer,” swears it “happened in tiny increments”: He moved from “barely legal” images to images of underage adolescents, until one day he clicked on a pop-up that led to a video of a man having sex with a child. Michael was disgusted by the video—but he kept it, he says, “just in case.”

The others are activists of one stripe or another: hackers, cypherpunks, crypto-anarchists, for whom anonymity “extends the degrees of freedom individuals have.” But the freedom that many of them have in mind sounds rather cold and compassionless. Tim May, author of the 1994 cypherpunk manifesto Cyphernomicon, tells Bartlett—half-jokingly—“We’re about to see the burn-off of useless eaters.” He adds, more seriously, “crypto[-anarchy] is about making the world safe for the 1 percent.” It’s a vision of the future in which a monetary oligarchy is replaced by a technological one.

And, presumably, it’s a future in which the women who haven’t been burned off do the cooking and cleaning. The “hacker space” at Calafou seems to be all-male. Zoltan Istvan, a transhumanist who plans to live forever, “has a wife and two young children—but makes time, he says, for twelve to fourteen hours a day of transhumanist-related work.” Either he’s exaggerating, or he has an exceptionally understanding wife.

And while the women Bartlett profiles are not all victims of harassment, an anecdote from his first chapter, “Unmasking the Trolls,” which documents “Sarah’s” experience on the /b/ board of the website 4chan, is indicative. On August 7, 2013, Sarah posted a semi-naked photo of herself, intending to “cam” for users: they submitted sexually explicit requests, and she snapped pictures and uploaded them. One user suggested she pose naked with her first name written “somewhere on her body.” Another asked her to photograph herself alongside any medication she was currently taking. The information provided was enough to uncover Sarah’s full name, address, phone number, and social media accounts. Within a few minutes, a collage of her pictures was being sent around to her family and friends, with the following message attached: “Hey, do you know Sarah? The poor little sweetie has done some really bad things. So you know, here are the pictures she’s posted on the internet for everyone to see.”

Sarah seemingly went on to the /b/ forum assuming what she did there would never be linked to her life offline. The users—/b/tards, as they call themselves—who doxxed her made a similar assumption. She was wrong. But they were right—and they denied her the same right of anonymity that they continued, as they harassed her, to claim for themselves. What they did not claim was responsibility. After Sarah was doxxed, they began gleefully sharing screengrabs of other “‘classic’ life ruins.” If she had been “clever,” one /b/tard wrote of a girl whose nude photographs had been shared on her hacked Facebook timeline, “she would have g[ot] t[he] f[uck] o[ut] she didn’t, therefore she deserves the consequences.” In other words: she was asking for it.

Only rarely does the doxxing go the other way. In 2012, Adrian Chen traced the real-world identity of a Reddit user who went by “Violentacrez.” As Violentacrez, he specialized in “distributing images of scantily-clad underage girls.” As Michael Brutsch, he lived in Texas with his wife, was “a military father and cat-lover.” Interviewed on CNN, he was somewhat less than remorseful. “I am,” he told reporter Drew Griffin, “to some degree apologizing for what I did.”

“Ultimately,” writes Bartlett, “the dark net is nothing more than a mirror of society. Distorted, magnified, and mutated by the strange and unnatural conditions of life online—but still recognizably us.” And so it is not surprising that, online as well as off, women are generally more vulnerable than men: subjected to double-standards and casual sexism; punished for claiming the same privileges—of speech, access, privacy—their abusers use to attack them. That (with exceptions, of course) women who seek approval online via sex are punished for it; that men who seek approval via threats of violence and displays of dominance are not. What is surprising—and frustrating, especially given his general ability to empathize with his subjects—is Bartlett’s failure, or perhaps refusal, to comment explicitly on this evident trend.

In January, This American Life aired a story by the writer Lindy West about online harassment. West had been the recipient of online abuse before, but when one particularly nasty troll attacked her by impersonating her dead father on Twitter she wrote about the experience for Jezebel. The troll read her post and emailed her an apology. “I can’t say sorry enough,” he wrote. “It finally hit me. There is a living, breathing human being who’s reading this shit. I’m attacking someone who never harmed me in any way and for no reason whatsoever. I’m done being a troll.” On the radio program, West called her troll. “Here’s the thing,” he told her, when she asked if his attacks had anything to do with her being a woman. “I work with women all day, and I don’t have an issue with anyone. I could’ve told you back then if someone had said to me, oh, you’re a misogynist. You hate women. And I could say, nuh-uh, I love my mom . . . But you can’t claim to be OK with women and then go online and insult them—seek them out to harm them emotionally.”

“Most of the chief protagonists in this book,” Bartlett writes, “I met online first, and offline second. I always liked them more in the real world.” West’s experience echoes Bartlett’s—but it’s also undeniably a fluke, a kind of online miracle. Most women who are harassed online won’t ever get an apologetic email from their abusers, won’t ever hear them admit their misogyny, won’t ever meet them—and why would they want to? It’s tempting to say that if Jamie Bartlett were a woman, The Dark Net would necessarily have included a deeper analysis of misogyny on the web. But then, a female Jamie Bartlett would have faced a lot more trouble in writing the book in the first place.

Miranda Popkey is the assistant to the editor at Harper's Magazine.