Hidden services like .onion sites on the Tor network and .i2p eepsites on the I2P network have been gathering negative publicity over the last few years. The term “dark web” has become synonymous with black markets and other unwholesome activities. In this article I try to present an use case for hidden services that has a place in the struggles of at-risk communities around the world.
An at-risk community is any community, no matter how loosely-coupled, being a member of which puts one at risk by hostile actors. This definition is open to positive as well as negative interpretation depending on the social context and the specific community. While some at-risk communities, like criminals are going to always be considered harmful to society regardless of the social context, others like ethnic minorities are not as clear-cut. Their effect on society may be considered harmful by an oppressive regimes, but promoting diversity by a more liberal one. It is this latter family of at-risk communities that can benefit uniquely from hidden services.
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A modern oppressive regime controls the flow of information to its subjects and has strong control over the narratives in play. These narratives usually paint the various at-risk groups in negative light. As access to the internet is often curated by the regime, anything that does not fit the official narratives gets filtered out. This is where plain circumvention (VPN, Tor, proxies) can help to a certain degree. However this only makes information from outside, or non-oppressed entities available; in contrast, a hidden service operated by someone living under the oppressed regime will be able to offer more relevant information to the community the operator belongs to.
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Imagine you’re living in an oppressive country and your political views are in opposition of the government. You want to set up a blog where you discuss your views and post updates. Doing so over the clear net will put you at risk and will not be effective because your blog will be taken down quickly. You may have the option to flee and move to another country and set operations there — then visitors from home may be able to use a simple VPN to view your site, should it get filtered by the regime. However, in that case you are no longer living alongside the people you want to help; you’ve become an outsider and the government can, and probably will accuse you of meddling, but worse is that your information and blog updates are no longer going to be as relevant.
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A hidden service is the perfect solution for this scenario. It protects your identity as well the identities of your viewers. That minimizes the risk that should your blog be discovered and taken down, your readers are not going to be put in danger.
Work continues to this day by the developers of Tor and I2P to make running such hidden services easier and safer than before. On the other side of the fence, attempts are constantly made to paint hidden services as only useful to criminals. The truth as usual is not as simple. I am of the opinion that we need hidden services for a healthy society.