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Newsflash: Tor can be used for good – just ask these journalists

ProPublica became the first major news organization to launch a .onion site on the Tor Network. Can it help persuade people that hidden services on the dark web can be used for good?

If it was once the job of newspapers to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” there may be no better heir to muckraking journalism than ProPublica.

Since its founding in 2008, the non-profit ProPublica has won two Pulitzer Prizes for its investigative journalism, and sheds light on controversial topics like NSA spying, drug cartels, doping in sports, and corporate money in politics.

But while it carries on the best tradition of the “ink-stained wretches” of journalism’s heyday, ProPublica is pushing boundaries in the new media landscape, becoming the first major news organization to launch a .onion website on the dark web.

(You can go to ProPublica’s hidden service site using the Tor browser at this address: http://propub3r6espa33w.onion)

Mike Tigas, the developer who built ProPublica’s website on the Tor network, told Wired that the non-profit news outfit first looked into creating a dark web “hidden service” a year ago, when it launched an investigation into internet censorship in China.

A dark web version of the ProPublica website would allow Chinese citizens to read about censorship in their own country anonymously, Tigas said.

Not only that, everyone should have the ability to read ProPublica’s content without being tracked, Tigas said:

Everyone should have the ability to decide what types of metadata they leave behind. We don't want anyone to know that you came to us or what you read.

ProPublica also uses the dark web to protect sources – as do other news organizations like The Guardian and The Intercept, which played a major role in breaking news about the Edward Snowden leaks.

ProPublica uses a hidden service on Tor called SecureDrop that allows sources to submit tips, data and files secretly and securely.

Of course, the dark web has other, more nefarious uses, and has become somewhat of a safe haven for criminal activity.

The FBI has long been interested in cracking Tor’s encryption to hunt down cybercriminals and child sex abusers.

All that has given the dark web a bad reputation, which the Tor Project is hoping to change under its new executive director, Shari Steele.

Steele has launched a new fundraising campaign featuring pro-privacy users like Laura Poitras, the award-winning filmmaker who was among the first journalists to meet Snowden.

Steele, who formerly headed up the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said this week in an interview with Ars Technica that she’s bewildered by the divergence between the public’s perception of Tor and the Tor Project’s mission:

Everyone here wants to make the world a better place and sees this as an essential freedom tool; [Tor technologists] think of themselves as freedom fighters. It's really weird that the public perception is so completely out of touch with what this project is really about.

Tigas says he hopes ProPublica can help show people that there’s more to the dark web than illegal sites:

Having good examples of sites like ProPublica and SecureDrop using hidden services shows that these things aren't just for criminals.

Image of retro journalism equipment courtesy of


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