Friday 28 October 2016

Can media make it on the darkside?

Published 24/01/2016 | 02:30

'Could the future look bright for publishers on the dark net?'
'Could the future look bright for publishers on the dark net?'

The dark net is often reported as a murky corner of the internet, rife with illegal drug dealing and pornography.

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The dark net, if you didn't know, is the term for a network of encrypted websites accessed via a special web browser that allows users to browse the net anonymously. But in recent weeks two websites have launched versions of their sites on the dark net, prompting the question could the future look bright for publishers on the dark net?

The first is ProPublica, a New York based, not-for-profit investigative journalism outfit. ProPublica has set up a version of its site on a Tor hidden service, the technical name for the dark net. Why? Because it regularly reports on censorship, digital privacy and surveillance, and wants its readers to feel secure when accessing this data.

"Readers use our interactive databases to see data that reveals a lot about themselves, such as whether their doctor gets payments from drug companies," said Mike Tigas, a news applications developer at ProPublica. "Our readers should never need to worry that somebody else is watching what they're doing on our site."

Adland is the other website to go over to the dark side. It's a site dedicated to showcasing advertising creativity. Founder Åsk Wäppling told Drum Magazine that the decision to set up on the dark net was based on an increase in the number of visitors to her site using ad-blocking software.

She believes that privacy is now a pressing issue for her audience; they don't just want to block the ads, they want to block the data that's being gathered on them. Yes, you're right: it's more than a touch ironic that the audience for an advertising site is turned off by the ads and ad-tech on the standard version of the site.

Jamie Bartlett is the director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at the think tank Demos and the author of the book The Dark Net. Like Adland's Wäppling, he believes that media outlets appearing on the dark net is indicative of the growing importance of privacy to users.

"The general trend is towards more powerful encryption and more serious consideration and care over people's personal information," he says. "A lot of the big technology companies are getting interested in this area. Apple's phones are encrypted and hard to crack into. And Facebook has launched a site on the dark net as well. So for me, privacy is not a tangent. It's where a lot of the future of the internet lies."

However, Bartlett is slightly sceptical about publishers setting up shop on the dark net just for the sake of it. "For some though, it's more of a branding exercise. 'We're cool! We're on the dark net!' Everyone's trying to try to get an edge - but there needs to be a genuine necessity and reason for news outlets to consider setting up some services there."

So what could those genuine reasons be?

"I think the dark net is powerful place for whistle-blowers," says Bartlett. "This is a secure place for journalists' sources to be protected. Plus there's an opportunity to provide a news service in a parts of the world that are heavily censored.

"So if the Chinese government is censoring all websites from a particular news outlet, it's probably safer for users in that country, and actually possible for users of that website to use Tor hidden services to still get that news.

"I think that something like the BBC would have almost a moral obligation to place some of its news on Tor hidden services, because it makes it available to places where it might be dangerous to access the BBC."

So the dark net could work as a means to access and disseminate sensitive and potentially incendiary information - but could it help publishers turn a buck?

Based on the current ad-heavy approach, adopted by most online media outlets, Bartlett isn't so sure.

"A lot of the current business models seem to be based on collecting personal information," he says. "So in terms of the current business models, it's more of a threat than an opportunity. But, as ever, companies and individuals always work out ways of using these technologies in a commercial setting. I've no doubt that people will come up with amazing paid for services that are based on anonymity and privacy - and make money out of it."

But publishers that use the dark net risk being seen as squatters alongside some seriously unsavoury characters. When we think of the dark net, we think of drugs, porn and worse. So does the dark net deserve its image problem?

"It's been unfortunate in its title," says Bartlett. 'The name is meant to mean 'obscure, hidden from view' rather than 'evil'. There's no doubt that there has been a huge amount of dodgy activity taking place on the dark net.

"Anyone that tries to say that there isn't bad stuff happening there is wrong. But that doesn't take away from the positive uses that maybe aren't talked about too much - the whistle-blower sites and political activist blogs.

"I think and I hope that with media outlets setting up shop there that this might all change."

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