There is a lot of hype around about the Darknet being a seedy place full of drug dealers and pedophiles. To be honest there is that sort of thing going on. But this is not an episode of Mr. Robot so we’ll not sensationalize it.
So what is the Darknet?
What most people refer to as the “Darknet” is really a network of servers and clients used for Tor. Which is what is called “onion routing”. When you are on the regular Internet you open your browser and type in a URL like this site (jascha.me). That domain name is then translated by DNS (Domain Naming System) into an IP (Internet Protocol) address (126.96.36.199). This is where the server is that hosts this site. So it is a direct connection from your computer to this site.
With Onion Routing there are a worldwide network of servers that are called Tor Exits. So if you are using Tor you type in the URL you wish to visit (jascha.me) then via an encrypted tunnel it is randomly sent through Tor relays and comes out at a random Tor Exit. The exit being a means of allowing traffic out of the Tor network and back to the regular Internet.
But to understand the Darknet you have to also understand Tor Hidden Services. These are servers that run exclusively in many cases on the Tor network. Using the .onion extension to be accessed as a normal DNS name might be like duckduckgo.com.
The most famous Darknet site is probably The Silk Road, which was like an eBay for anything illicit. Along with also helping to give the technologies behind it a black eye in the media. But in reality Tor and Onion Routing was started by the US Navy and is (or has been) sponsored by NSC, DARPA, and many others.
An example of a site also available as a hidden service is DuckDuckGo search.
duckduckgo.com > 3g2upl4pq6kufc4m.onion
Many journalists and people who live under repressive regimes use Tor to freely access information. So you too can use it for this reason. By using Tor you protect your anonymity to a great degree.
So how do I get this Tor thing?
The easiest way to get Tor on your computer is to use the Tor Browser.
Once you install and start Tor Browser it will check for updates then you can browse the Internet. Keep in mind that is you enable scripts for some sites that will leak information about you. Also note that by routing you all over the world the speed will be a bit slower than your regular connection (non-Tor’d).