The darknet appears to be turning posh. Depicted as the haven of money launderers, drug pushers, gun runners, assassins, pornographers, credit cardsharpers and black hat hackers for hire, this neighbourhood of the internet now has its own literary magazine. After two years on the drawing board, the first issue of the Torist is out. It lives inside the “onion routing” anonymity network of Tor and is not accessible from the regular internet. But it is not one of those desperately “l33t”, hackerly cabals which scorn the rest of humanity for being “dialups”, which are the slow 14.4 kbps phone lines which connected to the early internet. Instead, it is positioning itself as a bridge between communications technology and the humanities, which are generally not on talking terms.
“If a magazine publishes itself via a Tor hidden service, what does the creative output look like? How might it contrast itself with its clearweb counterparts? Who indeed will gravitate towards a dark web literary magazine?” asks its first editorial. That’s not hard to guess — they would oppose censorship and its doppelgänger, surveillance. They would be instinctively suspicious of the advertising-driven model which fuels media. And Edward Snowden would be a glowing point of reference in their firmament.
Indeed, the man strides across this inaugural issue, casting his shadow on satire, non-fiction and poetry. Infosec reporter JM Porup creates a bizarre surveillance world in which a government agency vacuums and analyses poo from the world’s sewers, in order to keep obscure “food terrorists” at bay. To readers in India, which has embarked on the world’s biggest drive to mine citizen data, Vance Osterhout’s poetry is sobering: “They made many press releases, saying,/ Don’t worry, it’s not you we’re after,/ but kept collecting:/ words, letters,/ each gnostic meaning./ Nothing was safe.”
The Torist is edited by Robert W Gehl, who teaches new media (such a delightful anachronism!), and the initially acronymous G.M.H. They have reached out to potential readers on the clearnet — the part of the internet which you, me and Google can see. But in general, the clearnet mislikes the darknet, which is the part of the internet hidden within the many-layered “onion routing” network of the Tor system. Google rejects searches launched from within the onion. The Torist’s Twitter account was blocked right after it was launched, but is up again following human intervention. Of the major communications services, only Facebook is friendly to the dark side, offering access through https://www.facebookcorewwwi.onion since 2014.
If this literary journal is inaccessible, it is so in the electronic rather than intellectual sense. You can get to it only by diving into Tor’s onion. This used to be a daunting prospect, but not any more. Torproject.org has browser bundles for all operating systems, which marry Tor and a Torified copy of Firefox. Android has a Tor app named Orbot and a secure browser named Orweb. To avoid needless self-torture, computer users should choose bundles, which don’t have to be installed, rather than Tor binaries. Once you have your rig up and running, point the Torified browser to http://toristinkirir4xj.onion, where the Torist lives. If you’re a security nut, block all other outgoing connections from your computer or phone, especially the updater. But then, if you’re a security nut, you don’t need to read this.
The Torist is out to give the dark web a good name. Interestingly, the idea was hatched in 2014, the darkest hour of the dark web, when the FBI cracked the drug trading network Silk Road, and Anonymous launched global attacks to cripple child pornography networks. Shady operators still have a weakness for the dark web. Most recently, a Californian was arrested for selling drugs worth $1.43 million inside the onion, and a minor was prevented from buying a Glock pistol. In its heyday, the dark web even offered east European hitmen, survivors of the unpleasantness in the Balkans, who advertised their services with rate cards.
I was mortified to learn that a newspaper editor’s life was cheaper than a two-bit legislator’s.
However, the darknet is dark as in dark matter, not as in the Dark Side. It is simply invisible to the unaided eye. It was created to facilitate secure communications for journalists and activist organisations like Wikileaks, but secrecy usually attracts the ungodly. Some seek Mossack Fonseca. Some hit the Tor button.
The main story about Tor is political. It concerns darknet communities like the now-defunct Galaxy, and the myriad conversations between people the world over in search of a truly new media and disruptive models for communications and publishing. The press has generally preferred racier stories about Bitcoin laundering and the economics of Purple Haze. The Torist is drawing attention for having set a bearing towards the light. As its first editorial says, “We hope we have started another dark web community, one dedicated to creativity, art, writing, and exploration.” The last word is significant.
Disclaimer: Logging onto the Tor Network or other parts of the DarkNet is at a user’s risk