Most activity on the dark web is legal and mundane

Terbium Labs has conducted a data-driven, fact-based research report that looked to identify what’s really taking place on the far corners of the Internet.

dark web legal

Total findings for all content, measured by URL

For most, the term dark web immediately conjures thoughts of illegal drug sales, pornography, weapons of mass destruction, fraud and other criminal acts. The reality however is that the bulk of activity appearing on the dark web is much like the content and commerce found on the clear web. In fact, research found that around half of dark web content is legal.

“What we’ve found is that the dark web isn’t quite as dark as you may have thought,” said Emily Wilson, Director of Analysis at Terbium Labs. “The vast majority of dark web research to date has focused on illegal activity while overlooking the existence of legal content. We wanted to take a complete view of the dark web to determine its true nature and to offer readers of this report a holistic view of dark web activity – both good and bad.”

A key advantage to this study and its approach was having access to Terbium’s dark web crawler, which continuously scours the dark web adding billions of new records to its database each day. This big-data infrastructure, unrivaled data set, and ability to include hard-to-measure sites like those hidden behind captchas and logins, provided Terbium a more comprehensive and representative data set than what could be collected by human-curated lists or naive crawl. By sampling from this more exhaustive population of dark web sites, the methodology used minimized selection bias and provided a more representative picture of the types of content found on the dark web.

Key findings

Anonymity does not mean criminality. Although the dark web receives a lot of negative attention for its commitment to anonymity, most of the dark web (while anonymous) is entirely legal. Legal content comprised 54.5% of the dark web content observed in this research.

Pornography is prominent, but not all of it is illegal. Discussions about dark web pornography almost exclusively revolve around exploitation, but the dark web is home to its fair share of explicit content that is totally legal – almost 7% of the total content in this study.

Drugs are a popular topic. While drugs make up only 12% of total content on the dark web, 45% of illegal content on the dark web is focused on drugs. Similarly, pharmaceuticals represent 3% of dark web content and 12% of illegal content.

The Fraud Foible. Surprisingly, fraud was much lower than anticipated, representing less than 2% of total dark web content and nearly 5% of illegal content. This is likely due to the prevalence of fraud material on sites that are technically part of the clear web.

Extremism in rare. Terbium found only one incident of extremism in its sample. No incidents of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or human trafficking were observed, reiterating how rare these types of content are on the dark web.

“Conducting research on the dark web is a difficult task because the boundaries between categories are unclear,” said Clare Gollnick, Chief Data Scientist at Terbium Labs. “We put significant effort into making sure this study was based on a representative, random sample of the dark web. We believe the end result is a fair and comprehensive assessment of dark web activity, with clear acknowledgement of the limitations involved in both dark web data specifically and broader limitations of data generally.”

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