The dark web has shrunk by approximately 85%.
This was the revelation that was brought to light by a published OnionScan report after the web hosting giant Freedom Hosting II (FHII) was taken offline in an apparent breach earlier this year.
The site was taken down by vigilante group of hacktivists after it was discovered that the web hosting service was home to explicit child abuse and pornographic websites.
Known to serve an estimated 15 to 20% of all of the dark web sites, no one expected the impact of its closure to be as extensive as it is now.
Anonymity and privacy researcher Sarah Jamie Lewis confirmed that the dark web has indeed been cut down significantly following the takedown of the web hosting giant.
A scan with the investigation tool OnionScan proved that she was right.
According to research that was conducted by Deep Light, a reputable threat intelligence firm, the ballpark number of dark web services in April 2016 stood at approximately 30,000.
Of the 30,000 dark web sites that were probed with OnionScan, a scanning tool which Lewis helped develop, only 4,400 sites were shown to be currently active.
Although there are no firm numbers to stand by given the hidden nature of these sites, Lewis admits that the dark web has significantly diminished in volume of sites.
The February FHII breach affected its size significantly, but it would not make sense to assume that 85% of dark web was missing, according to Lewis.
Why the Takedown of Freedom Hosting II Had Unexpected Consequences
A report published in October 2016 showed that FHII hosted about a fifth of sites on the entire dark web.
Following the repercussions of its takedown, experts speculate that FHII could have been holding a bigger chunk of the dark web than most people knew.
Other than the thousands of hidden services it hosted, it is possible that FHII was also home to other hosting providers.
According to Lewis, the takedown of the web hosting site could have resulted in a domino effect where the severed hosting providers that relied on FHII in turn went offline, leading to a much bigger impact than was expected.
The dark web is much larger and more nuanced than the media paints it to be.
Other than being a safe haven for drug and weapons vendors from around the world, this part of the internet, which is predominantly accessed via the Tor browser, affords activists, journalists, and other privacy-centric individuals to stay anonymous and maintain their privacy while using the internet.
Tor is also instrumental in countries with heavy internet censorship.
With the help of other internet privacy tools, such as VPNs, it helps the citizens of those countries to circumvent the various internet blocks and censorship that have been put in place by their governments.
Important Hidden Sites Suffer as Well
The shrinking of the dark web is a major blow to more than just the drug marketplaces.
Privacy-centric email services such as SIGAINT, which has been offline for several weeks now, have felt the pain of losing a major web hosting site.
When one factors in that social media sites such as Facebook now have a hidden service portal, it becomes clear that important hidden services could be at risk, too.
The takedown of FHII has brought up the need to have a system in which the failure of a hosting provider does not result in the death of the sites that depended on it.
Lewis is confident, however, that despite the difficulties involved in hosting anonymous services, there are people who are passionate enough about keeping dark web alive.
As such, she anticipates the creation of a more stable infrastructure which will show more resilience in the wake of these inevitable incidents.