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The Dark Net, book review: Tales from the internet underworld

How does internet technology change the reality of what humans do? In this book, Jamie Bartlett explores some of the internet's wilder shores in search of an answer.

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The Dark Net • By Jamie Bartlett • William Heineman • 303 pages • ISBN: 978-0-434-02315-8 • £20

I like to think of myself as far more than averagely knowledgeable about the internet and its by-ways, but here's a sub-genre I had no idea existed: Indifferent Cats in Internet Porn. It sounds like a twisted version of the work of New Yorker cartoonist George Booth, whose drawings of auto mechanics, lonely old men and cluttered families nearly always feature a disaffected dog or cat in the corner. The big difference: I have four books of Booth's work but not as much desire to read the 'Indifferent Cats' blog, whose existence Jamie Bartlett notes in his new book, The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld.

The sub-genre makes a brief appearance because Bartlett's exploration of the parts of the internet that make good fodder for ignorant Daily Mail stories includes an evening watching behind the scenes while Vex, the UK's leading cam-model, and two of her friends perform a show. Of whom, if it needs to be said, I had never heard. To be a better internet journalist, I need to get out less.

The Dark Net is the kind of book we haven't seen for a while: an exploratory cybervoyage to distant lands most of us will probably never visit — and certainly not in this depth if we do. This genre was popular briefly in the early 1990s, when the internet was still on dial-up, only weird people used it and writers like JC Herz and the New Yorker's John Seabrook could get paid for, essentially, travelogues. Howard Rheingold's The Virtual Community was the pioneer, and there's still real substance in its study of the richness of online communities.

Travelogues focus on the places you actually might want to go, with a few warnings about avoiding unsavoury areas for your own safety and peace of mind. Bartlett sets out to show us the reality behind the rhetoric of today's knee-jerk policies surrounding the internet's seamier side. To that end, he studies trolling and cyberbullying, extremism, self-harm, Bitcoin and the online trade in child abuse images and illegal drugs. Through all of this, he's intrepid: he experiences first-hand Silk Road's best-in-class customer service by buying a gram of marijuana; goes on-site to watch Vex and her two friends perform a show; and visits the Calafou cooperative in Spain to understand their goals. What, he asks throughout, is the role of the internet? How does the technology change the reality of what humans do?

Non-sensational reporting

And humans are what he finds. Some, like 'Michael', convicted for possessing more than 3,000 child abuse images on his computer, or 'Amelia', who barely survived 'thinspirational' pro-anorexia sites, found themselves drawn from a few seemingly harmless clicks into grave danger. Others, like Vex or the coders of Calafou, are in much more pragmatic control of their destinies. The rest of us are at the mercy of forces that don't appear directly in this book: for example, Bartlett quotes Smári McCarthy, the activist and coder behind the secure email effort Mailpile, who recently came up with the startling figure that it costs 13 cents a day to surveille all internet users (McCarthy's goal is to raise that figure to $10,000).

Bartlett is at his best when reporting on the present and his own investigations. The most historically knowledgeable will niggle in a few places — for example, the section explaining the cryptographic background to Bitcoin. Overall, though, the book's great contribution is non-sensationalist reporting about very touchy subjects. If we're going to keep making laws about this stuff, we need this kind of sanity.