The Three Webs of the WWW

The digital realm is comprised of websites, servers, computer systems and networks. While the World Wide Web (WWW) and the National Intranet will exhibit these features, how they are interconnected to everything else both inside and outside the digital realm is where their fundamental differences become discernible. One of those key distinctions pertains to the demarcations between digital data belonging to the Self or Private Citizen and the Totality or Civil Society. This goes back to the opposing definitions of Property-as-Power and Property-as-Wealth. Here, the concept of Property Rights takes on a digital form that has yet to be properly recognized alongside its non-digital equivalents.

In the WWW, absent national borders, the concept of Property has been modelled after the delineations of Private and Common Properties-as-Wealth. There is digital information disseminated by Civil Society and then there is other digital information belonging to the Private Citizen. The distinctions on the WWW truly begin whenever somebody decides to search for said information on any search engine in most conventional browsers. Information considered “Common Property-as-Wealth” would be indexed on search engines and made accessible to anyone looking for them. Conversely, any information deemed “Private Property-as-Wealth” cannot be found on any search engine.

It is precisely within the Neoliberal concept of Property Rights that we discover how the WWW is divided into the “Clear Web,” the “Deep Web,” and the “Dark Web.” The analogy most frequently invoked to visualize the WWW is that of an iceberg, floating in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic. The proverbial tip of the iceberg signifies the Clear Web, the midsection the Deep Web, and the bottom as the Dark Web.  

The Clear Web is often understood as being easily accessible, which is similar to how most conceptions of Common Property-as-Wealth are also accessible to all members of Civil Society.  The Deep Web represents Private Property-as-Wealth, where information is only accessible to specific Private Citizens. Practically anything that cannot be found on search engines or inaccessible to Civil Society through normal means can be considered part of the Deep Web, hence its sheer size compared to the other two thirds of the WWW.

Yet there are so many misconceptions about the Dark Web that could otherwise be eliminated by recalling how the WWW was designed with the Neoliberal conception of Property-as-Wealth in mind. In fact, outside of computer scientists and programmers, the iceberg analogy itself has created so much confusion about the Dark Web and the Deep Web that a better analogy deserves to be made. Instead of treating the WWW as something as abstract as an iceberg, a more reliable analogy involves viewing the WWW as comparable to that of American Suburbia. In American Suburbia as it currently exists, there are commercial sites catering to the residents of nearby households and gated communities. Those sites constitute much of the Clear Web, whereas the surrounding households signify the Deep Web due to the personalized nature of the digital data. The gated communities in the distance, meanwhile, represent the Dark Web because of how access to both is restricted without the proper prerequisites. And much like any other offline gated community, the Dark Web never extends warm welcomes to visiting strangers.

Most conceptions of the Dark Web are “Darknets,” enclosed networks transmitting information between individual computers on a Peer-to-Peer (P2P) basis. Both the networks and the manner in which the information is transferred between computers, like the identities of the people using the computers themselves, are designed to be hidden. When the WWW became accessible following the Cold War, it was easy for anyone to track all movements of information, its senders and receivers. Thus, privacy, even in circumstances where it becomes necessary, could not be guaranteed within the digital realm.

Information in the digital realm travels across a series of Nodes to reach its destination. Suppose there are two Students in an SSE, Anton and Bruno, who are trying to relay messages to each other over the digital realm. Anton messages something to Bruno on his computer. The message is transmitted to a predetermined series of Nodes across the digital realm to reach Bruno’s computer on the receiving end. Bruno receives Anton’s message and replies to it, his message traveling across the same Nodes for Anton to receive that response made by Bruno.         
Let’s imagine that Anton and Bruno are Students of the same class and attending the same school as part of their SSE. Anton wanted to ask Bruno if he had been in contact with another Student from their class, Dorothy, who was assigned to a class project of theirs. Since Bruno has yet to receive something from Dorothy, Bruno informs Anton that he has not.      

What Bruno and Anton do not know is that a fourth Student from their class, Charlotte, is intercepting their messages. Charlotte is also working on the same class project, but with two other Students. Emil and Frieda. Since their messages are not encrypted, Charlotte knows that Bruno has yet to communicate with Dorothy, allowing her to tell Emil and Frieda offline that Anton, Bruno, and Dorothy have not started their project.

This is the scenario that the US military, specifically the US Navy, was anticipating in the 1990s when the WWW became accessible worldwide. There was an interest in ascertaining whether the movement of information in the digital realm, especially for military and intelligence purposes, could be concealed and hidden from others. In other words, is there a way for Anton and Bruno to contact Dorothy without Charlotte (and by extension, Emil and Frieda) knowing about their communications?

The solution proposed by the US Navy was the introduction of “Onion Routing.” Onion Routing refers to the practice of encasing digital information with a triple-layer veil of encryption as it travels across the digital realm. Going back to our example, imagine that Anton wants to send the same message to Bruno and is aware that Charlotte will be intercepting the message. With Onion Routing, Anton can conceal his message behind three routers that cannot be decrypted until it crosses an “Entry Node,” “Relay Node,” and “Exit Node.” Upon passing the Exit Node, the message becomes decrypted for Bruno. In theory, Charlotte would not be able to uncover Anton’s message to Bruno unless she knows the Exit Node that Anton chose.   

Of course, part of the encryption involves hiding the destination. If the Students’ school computer network only happens to have three Nodes, then Charlotte is guaranteed to know Anton’s message in spite of Onion Routing. Having six Nodes for Anton to choose from in order to send his message means that Charlotte has a 50% chance of successfully intercepting it. Nine Nodes bring that possibility down to 33% and so forth. Those same chances could be lowered even further if the other twenty three Students (including Bruno, Dorothy, Emil and Frieda) in Anton and Charlotte’s class are also transmitting other information across those nine Nodes at same time. In that case, it is almost unlikely that Charlotte is going to find out what Anton wrote to Bruno.     

What I just described was the logic behind why the US Navy later found it prudent for Onion Routing to becoming available to everyone on the WWW. With all kinds of people employing Onion Routing for every conceivable purpose on the Dark Web, the odds that somebody is going to find the relevant information amidst a sea of irrelevant ones will diminish to the extent that some semblance of anonymity could be attained. From the perspective of someone looking at the Dark Web like the bottom of an iceberg, Onion Routing seems impossible to intercept. But from the alternate perspective of somebody looking at the Dark Web with a Neoliberal conception of Property Rights, Onion Routing is far from secure.  

Who or what owns the Nodes employed in Onion Routing, especially the Exit Nodes (where information no longer has any encryption)? The majority are owned and operated by the US government (to be more precise, the Jeffersonians), but there are no guarantees that every Node in the Dark Web is going to be controlled by the US. Some might be controlled by the Soviet Union, Imperial Japan, the German Reich, Fascist Italy, or the People’s Republic of China. In the WWW, those “US adversaries” are will obviously have vested interests in controlling Onion Routing Nodes to spy on US government activities, in addition to the usual need to curtail terrorist and criminal activities. Sure, Proxy Servers and VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) could add additional layers of cybersecurity against interception with Onion Routing, but they do not guarantee protection against online hacking and offline interception. Moreover, the additional measures themselves shift the burden away from the ISPs and toward the VPN service providers. The Soviets, Imperial Japanese, Pan-Germanic Socialists, Fascists, and Maoists could always allow certain VPNs to operate in their countries as long as they have preinstalled backdoors for their intelligence services.  

The only real Intent behind why “US adversaries” have such vested interests is because the WWW makes no distinctions between sovereignty and privacy of every Totality on Earth. If the WWW cannot distinguish between personal privacy and national sovereignty, why should the WWW not resemble a Liberal Utilitarian Panopticon, the very Enlightenment concept that conceptualized mass surveillance? These accusations of mass surveillance being levied against them by Liberal Capitalists can also be redirected at the Liberal Capitalists themselves. Let us never forget that the main software employing Onion Routing, TOR browser, only became available about a year after 9/11, on September 20, 2002. Under the Freedom-Security Dialectic, one cannot speak of “protecting human rights” without simultaneously justifying counterintelligence and counterterrorist initiatives for “curtailing human rights.”

But why the lack of distinctions between personal privacy and national sovereignty? Like the rest of the WWW, the Jeffersonians never intended the Dark Web to protect anyone’s privacy, let alone entrap potential criminals and terrorists. It was always about using the WWW to promote their ideological interests and perpetuate the Empire of Liberty offline.

Categories: Politics

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