In the 1950s, a military base in the Sonoran Desert in California was shut down, but some of the marines remained and set up a settlement around the concrete slabs that were left behind. Over the next fifty years, as drifters, RV owners, and others set up camp at this part of the desert, the settlement evolved into what is now called Slab City. This city has been dubbed “one of America’s last free places”; its desolate and isolated location makes it difficult to enforce state laws there, allowing its residents to live free from its confines. There are many ways in which the people of Slab City make use of their independence from the law, whether it be the use of illegal substances or the building of an “art museum” that is not subject to government regulation and policies. Despite there being people who live in Slab City as they would otherwise have been homeless, most residents view it as a place of solace and freedom in a world where they can fully express themselves without censorship. Similarly to the formation of Slab City, when the Communications Decency Act of 1996was implemented to limit the widespread presence of obscenities and pornographic material on the internet, the creation of an uncensored sector of the internet was bound to occur sooner or later.
This part of the internet is most commonly known as the deep web, and it is where most online illegal activity occurs. Within this all-encompassing area of the deep web, however, there are many subsectors, the existence of some having yet to be confirmed. The charter web is one such subsector that contains anything from movies that have been banned worldwide to black markets to information about unpublished experiments to theories about the Illuminati. However, to be able to conduct these activities that have been prohibited by law and to overcome the restrictions put in place to prevent this conduct from happening on the surface web, the charter web must have barriers to accessing it, and therefore be exclusive in a sense. The charter web can be split into two parts, with the first being accessible through the Tor browser, which makes your searches difficult to track by sending your network traffic in encrypted packages through random nodes each time. Tor is inherently just an internet browser, and as such its installation is quite straightforward, making it more of a means to accessing the charter web than a barrier to it. The first true obstacle that is presented in this pursuit is the fact that the relevant websites are onion sites, meaning that their URLs end in .onion, and their domains are complex in nature, making them hard to find on Tor. I believe that this restriction’s primary function is to ensure that anyone who finds a website on the charter web does not just stumble upon it, but it is something that they are looking for. This also makes it harder for government agencies to trace these websites and to therefore regulate them, allowing them to evade censorship.
The deeper one goes into the charter web, the more exclusive the websites become and the harder they become to access, for better or for worse; visitors may be asked to create accounts, present official identification, use passwords, or even enter their credit card information to be granted access to the site. There is no doubt that these restrictions were put in place to deter agencies from discovering their illegal operations, which at this level might extend to and beyond criminal offenses at the federal level. However, there is something about how personal the details being asked for are that makes me think there is more to it than excluding the policy enforcers. If the creators of these websites on the charter web wanted to just be as hidden as possible from the government, they could implement a firewall that is very hard to penetrate or require some hacking or extensive coding experience to be granted access. In fact, the second part of the charter web, known as the Closed Shell System (CSS), was designed to do just that. Rather than using extensive software encryption, though, the CSS is more practical in that it is a private network accessible through information provided by the owner, circumventing the need to secure a website that would otherwise be publicly available. Thus, given that the creators of these websites that make up the first part of the charter web made them accessible through Tor, but asked for information specific to the user or entity visiting them, leads me to believe that the owners want to further restrict their user-base to people who are there specifically for the purpose of the website itself. To them, it is not enough that you are not actively trying to censor them, but they might want to know a bit about who you are either to ensure you are trustworthy, or so that they know who to question should their underground freedom become compromised.
When there is an outlet for expression, and some powerful entity puts restrictions on how one can express themselves or make use of this outlet, it is almost inevitable that a group will attempt to break free from these “shackles” placed upon them, no matter how justified they may be or how loosely they are fitted. However, to ensure that these outlaws stay free from these constraints, or in this specific case, to maintain their online operations without interference, they must set their own restrictions on who can join their group, and what people in their group can do. Indeed, most websites on the charter web have barriers in place to prevent government agencies and other people who may want to shut them down or cause them harm from accessing their site. In a community designed to be free from the confines of modern society, the people must have rules in place to allow them to live free from these confines, some of which may even be the same as those set by the society they are evading. Just like what has happened with the deep web, local police officers now patrol the streets of Slab City in order to prevent crimes such as theft that ruin the spirit of the city.
Magazine, Smithsonian, and Jennifer Nalewicki. 2018. “Inside Slab City, a Squatters’ Paradise in Southern California.” Smithsonian Magazine. October 1, 2018. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/inside-slab-city-squatters-paradise-southern-california-180970218/.
Ulrich, Amanda. 2020. “As Slab City Grows, the Community of Outcasts, Squatters, and Desert Dwellers Grapples with the Cost of Its Unique Freedoms.” Roadtrippers. January 21, 2020. https://roadtrippers.com/magazine/slab-city-california-desert/.
Joshi, Jaydev. 2021. “Mysterious Side of the Internet.” Nerd for Tech. May 16, 2021. https://medium.com/nerd-for-tech/mysterious-side-of-the-internet-5d2a02e103b7.
Kobie, Nicole. 2019. “What Is the Dark Web? How to Use Tor to Access the Dark Web.” Wired.co.uk. WIRED UK. May 19, 2019. https://www.wired.co.uk/article/what-is-the-dark-web-how-to-access.