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We all know the internet is a massive place. Experts think there are currently about 980 million websites accessible to average users.

But that’s just the tip of the digital iceberg.

What do we mean by that exactly? Well, the internet actually has a lot going on beneath the surface. And we do mean a lot. While the surface web — that is, the areas of the internet that are readily accessible — contains about 19TB of data, the parts of the internet we don’t regularly see contain 7,500TB.

Now you’ve probably heard about the deep and dark web before. You might even know that’s where some pretty bad stuff happens online. We’re going to get into what exactly you can find on these shadowy corners of the internet, but first, let’s examine why the internet is constructed this way starting off with the portion of it we’re all familiar with.

What Is the Surface Web?

The surface web is a collective term for all of the websites that are indexed by search engines, meaning you’re able to get to them from web browsers like Chrome and Firefox. These are the websites you use every day, from social media to online retailers to your cousin’s weird blog. These are all surface web locations that don’t require any special digital hoop-jumping to access.

Plenty of adult websites exist on the surface web, as well as unmoderated forums and some other less-than-family-friendly places. Just because the content isn’t for everyone doesn’t mean it’s a deep or dark website. What actually qualifies those is technical but pretty easy to understand.

What Is the Deep Web?

The deep web is all the unindexed “stuff” that is difficult to access if you don’t know it’s there.2 But that doesn’t mean it’s nefarious, necessarily. Most of the content on the deep web is perfectly legitimate, including email messages, chats, proprietary content for businesses, bank statements, health records, and paywalled content. You wouldn’t want other people to be able to see Google your checking account balance, right? That’s why that information is kept unindexed on the deep web.

FYI: The deep web is far bigger than the surface web. Experts estimate it makes up 90 percent or more of the internet.3

At the end of the day, the deep web actually allows the surface web to function how we want it to. By having private and public sections of the internet — and clearly delineating the two — we’re able to engage in more sophisticated processes, like transferring money, sending sensitive information over email, or moving health records from one specialist to another. Without the ability to keep some information hidden, the internet would be far less functional than it is today.

That said, some of the things folks want to keep private is because they shouldn’t be doing it in the first place — and that’s putting it lightly. This is where we start talking about the dark web. As a warning, some of the things we’ll mention in this next section might be upsetting.

What Is the Dark Web?

Some people use the terms “dark web” and “deep web” interchangeably, but they’re really quite different. While the deep web is “hidden” because it’s data that doesn’t need to be accessible to everyone, the dark web is a small section of the deep web from which a lot of illegal activity online originates. We wish we could say the rumors or overblown, but it’s on the dark web where you’ll find access to black markets for drugs and stolen personally identifying information like credit card numbers and Social Security numbers, firearms, prostitution, sex trafficking, and extreme or illegal pornography.

Pro Tip: Not to scare you, but if you look hard enough, you might find your own information on the dark web. Data breaches are all too common, and hackers are constantly building repositories of personally identifying information to sell in the internet’s back rooms. If you’re interested in preventing this from happening, you might want to check out our guide to identity theft protection.

You might have heard of the Silk Road marketplace that was shut down by international law enforcement, the leader of which — Ross Ulbricht — was sentenced to life without parole.4 This marketplace was an example of the types of services available on the dark web, many of which are very much operational today. Which raises all sorts of questions about legality.

Is It Illegal to Access the Dark Web?

Despite its nature, it’s perfectly legal to access the dark web. However, what you do there can get you into trouble. Obviously, buying drugs or trading illegal materials will get you into trouble, but there are plenty of legitimate uses for the dark web.

Pro Tip: Solid identity protection services will crawl the dark web looking for your personally identifying information. If it’s found, you’ll be alerted and advised on the best steps to take. Check out our review of Aura, which takes a cutting-edge, proactive response to dark web monitoring.

Journalists who might need to keep their sources anonymous, for example, might communicate over the dark web. The same goes for activists working to help victims of human trafficking or sexual assault.5 While anonymity online can bring out the worst in people, sometimes it’s necessary to bring out the best.

And remember, we don’t recommend accessing the dark web without a legitimate reason for doing so.

Final Thoughts on the Dark Web

While it might seem akin to an intriguing urban legend, the dark web is a very real place where very bad things happen. And like we said above, there’s no real need to go there unless it’s for a legitimate purpose. And while those purposes do exist, they’re few and far between.

We’re not just saying that to scare you. There’s nothing there for the average internet user, and if you’re not careful, you can get yourself into big-time, real-world trouble by poking around. Some things you’ll never be able to unsee, and some activities will have the authorities knocking on your door before you can close your browser. Take our word for it: Some rocks just aren’t worth turning over, and this is one of them.