Between March and September of last year, four out of five visits to a major part of the Dark Web—the anonymous corner of the Internet—were to sites exhibiting the sexual abuse of children, says a new study picked up by Wired. These sites account for only 2% of the Dark Web, but got five times more traffic (or about 83%) than other sites, like those selling drugs, offering gambling, or providing a haven for whistleblowers. "Before we did this study, it was certainly my view that the dark net is a good thing. But it’s … creating a place where pedophiles can act with impunity," says UK computer science researcher Gareth Owen. The websites studied are part of Tor hidden services—which allows users to surf the web anonymously, BBC explains—and they occupy the biggest chunk of the Dark Web. Owen used relay computers and a web-crawling program to collect his data.
Tor executives point out the results could be distorted, and Owen acknowledges that "caution is advised" when assessing them. "We do not know the cause of the high hit count (to child abuse sites) and cannot say with any certainty that it corresponds with humans," he says. It's possible the traffic could be caused by law enforcement groups conducting investigations or hackers flooding the sites with fake visits. And then there's the positive justification for an anonymous web. "There are important uses for hidden services, such as when human rights activists use them to access Facebook or to blog anonymously," says Tor's executive director. Still, law enforcement and politicians are expected to push for a crackdown because of the study, and Owen says there may be ways to block child abuse sites. (A chunk of the Dark Web was shut down in November.)