The deep web is a space where people can speak freely, largely without fear of repercussions, thanks to the strong anonymity protections granted by tools such as Tor. As Motherboard showed recently, this manifested itself in one Chinese deep web forum by users debating ideas of freedom and censorship, beyond the clutches of China's infamous "Great Firewall."
But that freedom naturally has another side. Now the same forum has taken a darker turn, including open discussions of how to manufacture bombs.
The site in question, which was launched in October 2014, is referred to as the "Chinese dark web" by its pseudonymous administrator "King."
"This is a free Chinese internet world, here you can speak whatever is on your mind," he or she wrote when the site went live.
When Motherboard covered this site in February, the vast majority of the posts either concerned the basics of Tor, the anonymity network that the site is based on, or represented gasps of excitement from new users of the deep web.
"Haha, turns out I've discovered a Chinese forum, this is a pleasant surprise," wrote one user in Mandarin.
There were very few indications of illegal activity, apart from one individual looking for "customer data", and King suggesting that the sale of most things—as long as they weren't "against humanity"—was permitted.
When I revisited the site recently, I found a different type of discussion. In one thread on the site, a user says that they are "Seeking a DIY bomb site, I want to blow up the school, really," according to a Google translation.
It didn't take long for the discussion on the thread regarding DIY bombs to get into full swing. The first response involved fireworks, gunpowder, and nails. The next suggested "iron pieces". A further pseudonymous user posted a link to a detailed recipe for a small chemical bomb, and another submitted a guide published in Inspire, an English-language magazine reportedly published by Al-Qaeda (notably, these two links were for sites on the clear web). The last reply was written on May 1.
The English-language deep web is already well established, with forums covering cryptography, markets selling drugs and weapons, and even one site that just churns out random jokes about cats. The Mandarin deep web, however, appears to have only developed recently, and is only now starting to exhibit the variety offered by its English or Russian counterparts. This, it appears, includes some of the less savoury aspects of the dark web.
In China, internet censorship is an everyday reality, so perhaps the deep web provides an even greater opportunity for individuals to privately explore ideas that would otherwise be silenced. But these new, darker discussions are an inevitable consequence of having a truly open internet.
Either the deep web is free for everybody to discuss anything, or it is not a free space at all.
Watch: Buying guns and drugs on the dark web