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What Is The Mysterious Dark Web? And Is It A Hero Or A Villain?

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By Kabir Sharma

The dark web first came into mainstream knowledge with the FBI’s crackdown of the online drug marketplace Silk Road in 2013. There is lots of news about it once again: the much debated trial and life sentence given to Ross Ulbricht (Dread Pirate Roberts, founder of Silk Road) a few months ago; Europol starting a training program to catch dark web cybercriminals; rising interest in the encryption following Edward Snowden’s revelations on worldwide online mass surveillance; and Wikileaks once again accepting anonymous leaks on their dark web portal, after a four year long gap.

the dark web
The dark web refers to web content that exists on ‘dark nets’, networks requiring specific software to access. One such is the Tor (The Onion Router) network, which jumbles up IP addresses by randomly relaying the traffic between users worldwide. So if you, sitting in India, are viewing a website hosted in the UK, it could appear someone from New Zealand was viewing content from South Africa. The dark web forms a very small part of the Deep Web, which is all the content not indexed by search engines. This is estimated to be 96% of the web’s information, though it is largely just password protected databases like those of various journals and scientific organizations, private albums, intranets, etc.

Though it isn’t easy to study activity on the dark web, a 2014 study found the most requested type of content on Tor related to its darkest activity: child abuse, in the forms of child pornography and pedophilia. There have been arguments to explain why this could be a false result, including the fact that many of those visitors would have been child porn investigators; however the fact that it allows child abusers to work with impunity, is something even the staunchest dark web supporters find hard to counter. Still, it is important to note that the Internet Watch Foundation found out of the total 31,266 URLs containing child porn images online, only 51 were hosted on the dark web.

Other illicit things such as drugs, weapons and explosives, services of hackers and hit men, fake IDs and bank notes, are readily available on the dark web as well. However, the dark web’s contribution to such activities web-wide is again small. Websites selling drugs and other ‘dark web’ items are also far more on the regular web. The Tor Project claims only 1.5 percent of overall traffic on its anonymous network is to do with hidden sites, the rest of the users use Tor just to hide their regular browsing habits.

Surveillance, Whistleblowers And The Dark Web

The debate between those resolutely for and against mass surveillance by governments, fought over concerns of privacy versus security is an ongoing one, and one that can only be resolved if adequate legal checks and balances are put in place. For example, the passing of the Freedom Act in the U.S. this year, responding to the uproar that followed Snowden’s revelations on the NSA (National Security Agency)’s PRISM project has been a significant step forward. Snowden had revealed to what level the NSA was spying on millions of non-suspects, collecting material to potentially squelch dissent or intimidate those fighting to make corporate and state power more accountable.

In India, neither the Congress nor the BJP governments took parliamentary sanction for the Central Monitoring System (our version of PRISM) being enforced across the country this year. Present laws governing tapping, the Indian Telegraph Act and IT Act, were made before the concept of mass surveillance, and are not up to the task of providing the checks required.

In the meantime, the dark web has been providing an anonymous space to whistleblowers and political discussion forums alike. And they maintain a good presence on its pages, even in countries like China.

The impact of mass surveillance on individual expression and dissent is still unclear. One study found 75% writers from developed, democratic and ‘free-er’ countries to be self censoring their publicly made opinions. However, another found 60% respondents feeling surveillance would not change their tendency to publicly criticise their governments; with the majority of those who felt it would, saying it would spur them on to criticize more. The same survey however, found only 17% people supportive of mass surveillance covering all internet users worldwide.

While all of this is debated, adapting to the times, the ‘Snowden effect‘ is seeing an increasing number of people moving to methods to encrypt their browsing and communication through the dark web or otherwise. And big corporations like Facebook, well ahead of the curve, are already on their way to monetizing this. Facebook’s new service claiming to provide NSA-proof email encryption, and earlier move to become available through a Tor URL, though difficult to take seriously, are steps into an expanding market. And similarly, Facebook and others are holding on to their existing IM markets by standing up to governments wanting to disallow heavily encrypted services such as WhatsApp; all the while championing user privacy.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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