Now and then I see the term 'Darknet' online, and you've probably seen it, too. So what is a Darknet? Well, it depends on who you ask.
There are several terms bouncing around the Internet: Dark Web, Deep Web, Deep Net, and Darknet. Oh, and Anonymous Networks. It gets confusing. This post will simply address Darknets and Anonymous Networks, and save the remaining terms for another day.
Let's start with how the Internet normally works. You want to visit a website, so your computer sends a request in the form of data packets. Each packet is addressed with where it came from (your computer) and where it's going (the site you want to visit). When a data packet reaches a web server, it looks at the address, and passes it along to the next server until it reaches its destination.
Your IP address, which is the key to your location and identity, remains known because there is a clear trail from your computer to its destination.
In 2002, four Microsoft employees wrote a paper titled, "The Darknet and the Future of Content Distribution." Their angle was that protecting copyrighted material like music with DRM (Digital Rights Management) would be difficult if people resorted to file sharing on their own private Darknets.
Darknets are decentralized, non-commercial, private networks that function using P2P (peer to peer) or F2F (friend to friend) protocols.
What does that mean? A Darknet is where people go to anonymously share files.
Popular Torrent-style sites that share music and games may not be true darknets because they are not between trusted peers, but instead let any user connect with any other.
However, even Darknets are not truly anonymous because your Internet Service Provider can inspect your data packets if they think you're sending spam or pirating games or something nefarious. To counter this, some users move to Anonymous Networks like Tor and i2p, which use 'onion routing.'
Onion routing places layers of encryption around your data packet, and as the packet moves from router to router, a layer of encryption is peeled away. By the time it reaches its destination, that web server can only see the last place the packet came from, not its original location (your computer).
Like any technology, Darknets and Anonymous Networks can be used for good or evil. Credit card thieves, child pornographers, and pirates can use them to sell or trade files. However, citizens of oppressive regimes like Syria, Iran or China can use them to communicate and organize with less fear of being arrested.
I didn't find data on how many Darknets are in use or how many people use them, but I think they are here to stay. People want online anonymity for a variety of reasons, and that is motivation enough to keep building new Darknets every day.