I'm writing this today mostly cause it annoys me that even 20 year cyber security vets (while correcting other people's assumptions) continue to say untrue things about darknets, deep and dark web, etc... So hopefully this guide will help you get past some of the nonsense.

Start here

To begin with, lets go over basics of what each thing is, so there's less term confusion.

  • Dark web, is any non-indexed web content, including alternative protocols (not websites). This can be almost anything like emails, telnet bbs, filesharing services, or darknet sites. This does not include sites like raidforums and hackforums, as these are both heavily indexed as are the overwhelming majority of hacker websites.
  • Cryptonet, is a cryptographic network of any kind, normally used to conseal data during transmission. This can include everything from ssh tunneling to vpn services. These are normally dark web services as they are not publicly indexed or monitored. Some services, like zeronet, are a cryptonet but NOT darknet.
  • Dark net, is a cryptographic network focused on anonymity or protection of privacy. These actually predate the internet itself and have protected freedoms of people with platforms such as i2p, freenet, ants, tor, mixminion and mixmaster, jap, mute, haystack. These function using proxy service you run. The in-proxy, allows you to connect in-bound into the network. The network is usually, while distributed, identified from a known source which is connected to (i2p goes to their routers, tor to their in-relays, both of which usually found with the installation as the latest trusted, but if fails to connect to those will connect to their public websites to find the sources to begin the cryptographic exchange.
  • P2P data sharing platforms, are usually public though self-indexed, and services like retroshare, usenet, gnutella, torrents and zeronet. These services do not have run on cryptonets, but can and more and more frequently are.
  • "crypto" was a phrase previously used exclusively to mean cryptography in all sense. Modern usage has begun to show people referring to cryptographically tracked (usually blockchain) monetary tokens, such as btc, eth, etc... Every transaction is public, tracked, indexed, and non-reputable to a user which may or may not be trackable to an individual human or company.

Unfortunate truths

  • At no time, as of this writing, has any darknet needed a special browser to access it. Many used special programs and network techniques but in the end it's functions as proxy networks. general flow of traffic in-proxy -> network (which i2p and tor are both well known for their network strategies) -> (outproxies -> internet) if allowed. You don't use tor by downloading a special browser and it's some magic in that. You download the product called "tor browser" which is a firefox bundle which runs tor as a service then launches your browser, and are running a modified copy of a normal browser (modified settings only, not source code). This was done because far too many people complained about setting tor up being too hard, so they made a wrapper for it. THATS ALL IT IS. Any cyber security expert that says you access "the" darknet through a special browser, doesn't get it, hasn't used it, and doesn't know what they're talking about.
  • There is no "THE" in darknet and there really shouldn't be a "THE" in "dark web" either, but it's used that way to associate a wider collective of things, so it evens out. There is many of darknets, many of them connect to many others, and the idea is very much that services can be provided distributed and in secure ways that can defeat even the most willingly spending government adversaries from spying on users. This is a constant battle and anyone with any coding or math skills I HIGHLY recommend getting involved with the dev forums on reddit, i2p, and tor, at least.
  • Hackers, pedophiles, rapists, extortionists, and human traffickers do not need darkweb, cryptonets, p2p services, or darknets to stay in business. Most of all of these use public sites like facebook, whatsapp, 4chan, 7chan, 8ch, reddit, raidforums, hacked, leaked, etc... and yet others make their own sites or hack a site and host a password protected group on someone else's server all connected raw and straight to the internet without bother. The myth that hackers use tor onion sites or i2p eepsites more often for hacking has been repeatedly debunked and the hacking activity seen in tor is mostly people trying to abuse their out-proxies to attack public internet hosts. MOST CRIMINAL HACKER GROUPS DO NOT FREQUENTLY USE DARKNETS, THE ONES THAT DO USE IT FOR CREDIBILITY. ITS MORE OFTEN USED BY SECURITY RESEARCHERS TRYING TO DISCUSS SENSITIVE EXPLOITS.
  • until the last 5 years or so there was a severe stigma about running scripts on a webpage within a darknet. Even if the script was a well known as studied javascript feature, they'd reject the entire site because it risked people's privacy. Thats how serious the scene is and was about tin foil hats on top of faraday cages on top of controls for every circuit, for every board, for every chip. I grew up on the internet living in this level of paranoia because this was constantly encouraged in those circles and often in infosec in general.
  • I have seen uranium heavy water and boxes of mac-11s go on sale on criminal markets, which existed on public internet, i2p, and tor. This was well before people started taking down sites or catching DPR. I've also found that in i2p you can create router families and effectively make a sub-network within the i2p network, which you can then remove from the public i2p network to provide i2p eepsites to a private group that plausibly can't be infiltrated if the major i2p network went down. I've seen sites hosted like this, and usually those were private research groups NOT illicit content. I mention these things to further bring the point that criminals don't necessarily use the more private platforms as often as ANYONE else.
  • Very prolific members of the info/cyber security communities have continued to share misinformation about darknets, the most popular being misunderstanding how tor works, what it is, and assuming that this is "the" darknet instead of simply a darknet. 

Criminals

  • Use any platform they can
  • Abuse any service they can
  • Use any tools they can
  • Often take the easiest routes first, but always take the cheapest options first (even if that means cheaper in time expended, such as buying infrastructure). To fight a battle in which laws become irrelevant, such as in war or in cyber space; is to impose costs on your enemies, while mitigating or managing costs imposed to you.
  • ARE NOT MAGIC. If you don't understand what they're doing, that's a learning opportunity
  • Do not have the limits you as a person, or a company, do. Because legalities are more likely to rule your world than theirs. Understanding strategies to escape this problem, is key to information security.
  • Have absolutely nothing to do with darkweb, darknet, cryptonet, crypto, or p2p services. You don't need to be afraid, or treat these things as criminal. Instead look at your kids using snapchat to sell dope. No seriously.