Photo via Chris Glover/Flickr

You’ve probably heard a lot about the “Dark Web” in recent years, and I see lots and lots of adults who still have no idea what it is or how it works. That’s not actually all that surprising, since it’s fairly complicated, and still relatively new, at least to the vast majority of people. Here’s a dead-simple breakdown of exactly what the Dark Web is, what’s there, and why you should (or shouldn’t) care.

What is it?

“Dark Web” is a blanket term used to describe all the parts of the World Wide Web that you can’t access through a standard internet browser, like Chrome, Firefox, or Microsoft Edge. It’s called “dark” because it’s not clearly visible to the majority of people using the internet from their computers and phones, and people who use the Dark Web usually refer to the regular internet as the “Clearnet.” All the things you use that require the internet — websites, chat rooms, file sharing sites, etc — have counterparts that exist only on the Dark Web, and unless you have the right apps and software to access them, you’d never even know they were there.

How do I access the Dark Web?

If you want to browse parts of the Dark Web, you need special software to do it. There’s no one app that will give you universal access to every part of the Dark Web, but there are programs that are freely available that will let you browse many of the larger Dark Web networks. Tor, I2P, and Freenet are the larger, more populated networks, with Tor being the most popular.

Why do people use the Dark Web?

When you use an app like Tor — which is a browser just like Chrome or Firefox — you don’t connect directly to the website you’re visiting, like you do when you browse a regular “Clearnet” website. Instead, your internet connect is sent through something called a node, which then connects to the site or webpage you’re viewing. By sending the traffic through a node (and there are hundreds of nodes all over the world), your connect is lumped in with thousands of other users, and it becomes nearly impossible for anyone to track what you’re doing.

It’s a huge privacy boost, but that also makes Tor and the other Dark Web networks pretty sketchy. The plus side is that, with anonymity, some reporters and inside sources who act as whistleblowers are given the opportunity to reveal things about the government, businesses, and even individuals without fearing backlash. Some of the biggest news leaks of the past decade have originated on the Dark Web, like many of the stories published by Wikileaks.

The downside, of course, is that the added privacy allows many Dark Web users to engage in illegal activity, like selling and buying drugs, blackmailing people, and sharing illegal material like video of violent acts or pornography involving minors.

Should you care?

Well, that all depends. The Dark Web isn’t going to be going away any time soon, and more everyday internet users are visiting these hidden sites in search of news and information that they can’t get on the regular web, especially in countries where journalism is suppressed by the government and citizens don’t have regular news sources to rely on.

If you have no interest in unverifiable news, illegal drugs, or conspiracy theories, the Dark Web loses a lot of its appeal. There’s still some interesting things to find there, but you’re more than likely going to have to wade through a sea of sites you didn’t really want to visit in order to find what you’re looking for. At some point in the near future the Dark Web might fulfill its promise of being the ultimate information portal, but for now it’s not really worth the trouble.