The deep web allows even people living under harsh internet censorship to publish content anonymously. Those behind the Great Firewall of China are no exception.
Recently I've found several deep web sites with content written in Mandarin, some of which have an active user base. The majority of deep web sites are in English, with some in Russian and a couple of other languages.
One Chinese site, which the administrator refers to as the "Chinese dark web," was launched in October 2014, with the most recent post written today.
"This is a free Chinese Internet world, here you can speak whatever is on your mind," wrote the administrator "King."
As well as a discussion platform, the site also encourages trade between users. "All transactions will be using Bitcoin (BTC), according to the day's exchange rate converter," King wrote as part of a list of trading rules. He also provided some basic security information, such as, "All transactions do not use a real email, do not leave any mail in addition to contact information."
From what I can tell, any trade would work in a similar style to that of RAMP, the Russian Anonymous Marketplace. There, vendors advertise their various wares on the forum, but the actual trading takes place elsewhere, most likely from one bitcoin address to another. This is different to sites such as Silk Road and Evolution, which provide a space for the advertising of products, as well as an infrastructure for purchasing them.
According to one post, a user was keen on finding "where to buy customer data." There were no other adverts for products, although that sort of communication could also take place in private messages.
I didn't see any evidence of successful trading, but King made it clear that some things were banned from being sold: "Publication of any material against humanity is strictly prohibited, such as corpses, feces, etc.," he or she wrote in a forum post.
Elsewhere on the site is a link to a blog post which discusses the possibility of Chinese security services being able to break the popular encryption programme Truecrypt. Posts focusing on computer security feature elsewhere on other Chinese deep web forums, of which I found three, and most of them discuss the fundamentals of Tor.
Apart from this, and a lot of spam messages, many of the posts are from users simply excited to find a Chinese language forum.
"Haha, turns out I've discovered a Chinese forum, this is a pleasant surprise," wrote one user.
The sentiment was shared with another: "This is my first contact with this type of site. I read an online article about the deep web and dark networks, and became immediately interested. I feel nervous even now, because of my timid personally. I never thought my first contact with the dark web would be on a Chinese website. I hope the webmaster continues their good work. Cheers!!"
"On the legendary Deep Web, do not know what to do. . . . .," wrote another user.
These feelings of surprise may be because use of Tor, the network used to browse the internet anonymously and access these deep web sites, is relatively low in China.
"Tor usage has been so low in China for so long," Jason Q. Ng, a research fellow at the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab, and author of a book covering censorship and Chinese social media, told me in an email. The possible reasons for this, he said, were network and technical issues, as well as the popularity of other tools.
China's censors have been clamping down on popular VPN services
The majority of the demographic that Ng studies, users of mainstream social media like WeChat and Weibo, "aren't tech savvy enough to get Tor running speedily on their connections, let alone know how to navigate the dark net," he told me. It seems fair to point out that most American or European Facebook users likely don't know how to find their way around the deep web either.
Circumventing the Great Firewall is fairly easy. Instead of using Tor, which directs a user's traffic through three random points around the world in order to shield their identity, a VPN, which only routes their traffic through one "hop," is sufficient to access websites that are banned in China. Many of these VPNs are free and are often faster than browsing via the Tor network, as well as being much easier to use.
But recently, China's censors have been clamping down on popular VPN services. In January, the government upgraded the Firewall, blocking the use of Astrill, StrongVPN, and Golden Frog, according to a BBC report. The South China Morning Post suggested that, more broadly, this recent escalation in censorship could be "China's most severe crackdown in decades on how people learn about the world around them, talk to each other and do business."
In response to this, it appears that more people have indeed turned to Tor. Looking at the Tor Metrics site, the number of direct users of Tor from China increased from around 1500 to nearly 2500 in the past two weeks, and those using a "bridge" to connect—an additional connection step that is more resilient to being blocked—increased slightly.
"I think the recent upturn in activity is likely related to the crackdown on VPNs in China. People are just looking for other alternatives now and alternatives that work," a representative from GreatFire.org, a group that monitors Chinese censorship, told me in an email.
However, it is important not to mix the use of Tor with that of Tor hidden services. Most people downloading Tor in China are more likely to be using it to bypass the country's censorship, rather than accessing the deep web.
These Chinese forums, although active, are still fairly quiet. But if they continue to operate uninterrupted, and the desire for a space to communicate without censorship increases, perhaps more Chinese users will take the plunge into the deep web.
Steph Yin contributed translations.