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Why ProPublica Joined the Dark Web

You may have heard about the so-called “dark web” as a place where drugs and guns are sold on sites like Silk Road, an illicit online drug market that was shut down by the FBI in 2013. But don’t be alarmed by the ominous-sounding moniker – the dark web is just a way to browse the internet anonymously.

ProPublica recently launched a dark web version of our site (an “onion site” or “hidden service”) that runs on Tor, a network that lets people browse the internet anonymously. Wired called us the "dark web's first major news site." On this week’s podcast, ProPublica senior reporter Julia Angwin speaks with Mike Tigas, the ProPublica news applications developer who built our onion site, about what prompted this decision, the benefits to readers of having a more anonymous way to browse our site, and why the dark web isn’t necessarily the seedy place it’s cracked up to be.

Edwin Torres for ProPublica

Highlights from their conversation:

  • A ProPublica project about Chinese online censorship inspired the move to Tor.
    Tigas: Last year, we were working on a project called Inside the Firewall. It was an interactive news app about Chinese Internet censorship and the "Great Firewall," just tracking how international news sites are censored and uncensored within mainland China. During this, I was experimenting with using Tor around ProPublica-related things to see if maybe we could protect ourselves from being censored in the event that ProPublica is censored, or in the event that somebody is in a restrictive country or area – would people be able to still access our reporting and our content? (1:40)

  • Our Tor site also provides options for readers who just want to avoid ad tracking or other types of common online surveillance.
    Tigas: I think it's a public service to give your readers these kinds of choices. It's a very conscious decision that we have to make as an organization to decide that we want to do this. I think we all agree that letting our users choose what types of metadata the leave behind is a positive for us. (5:23)

  • Hidden service domain names are hard to remember, by design.
    Tigas: We have You're used to going to, or something like that – they're easy-to-remember names. The exact tor hidden service domain name for our hidden service is propub3r6espa33w.onion. They're generated through the software through an encryption technology inside Tor. They're usually impossible to remember. (6:34)

Listen to this podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud or Stitcher. For more, read A More Secure and Anonymous ProPublica Using Tor Hidden Services and check out our Twitter collection further detailing Why We're On the Dark Web.

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