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Darknets are distinct from other distributed peer-to-peer networks as sharing is anonymous (that is, IP addresses are not publicly shared), and therefore users can communicate with little fear of governmental or corporate interference.
For this reason, Darknets are often associated with dissident political communications and illegal activities. More generally, the term "darknet" can be used to describe all non-commercial sites on the Internet, or to refer to all "underground" web communications and technologies, most commonly those associated with illegal activity or dissent.
Originally coined in the 1970s to designate networks which were isolated from ARPANET (which evolved into the Internet) for security purposes, darknets were able to receive data from ARPANET but had addresses which did not appear in the network lists and would not answer pings or other inquiries.
The term gained public acceptance following publication of "The Darknet and the Future of Content Distribution", a 2002 paper by Peter Biddle, Paul England, Marcus Peinado, and Bryan Willman, four employees of Microsoft who described the concept as follows:
The idea of the darknet is based upon three assumptions:
- Any widely distributed object will be available to a fraction of users in a form that permits copying.
- Users will copy objects if it is possible and if they are interested in doing so.
- Users are connected by high-bandwidth channels.
The darknet is the distribution network that emerges from the injection of objects according to assumption 1 and the distribution of those objects according to assumptions 2 and 3.
The Microsoft researchers argued that the presence of the darknet was the primary hindrance to the development of workable DRM technologies.
The term has since been widely adopted and has seen usage in major media sources, including Rolling Stone and Wired. Recently darknets have been discussed in many fields of network security, largely because users who occupy such areas have gone there for various reasons. Some publish on darknets out of privacy concerns or for fear of political reprisal, while others publish on darknets for criminal gain. One trend that has been suggested is the use of "darknets" to share media files that are copyrighted.
When used to describe a file sharing network, the term is often used as a synonym for "friend-to-friend"—both describing networks where direct connections are only established between trusted friends. Software such as Nullsoft's Waste use this method. The most widespread "non-darknet" file sharing networks, such as BitTorrent, are not true darknets since peers will communicate with anyone else on the network. Darknet is also commonly used in a broader sense to describe any network which is non-commercial, that offers some level of anonymity and or obscurity. These networks usually make it less cost effective to uncover a user's activities. Many darknets require software to be installed to access them. Popular darknets include Freenet and GNUnet (when using its "F2F topology" option). Almost all known darknets are decentralized and therefore considered peer to peer.