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What are the legal risks of using the dark web?

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The dark web is often used for illegal criminal activity, which is why it is important to clarify exactly what it is and what the potential risks are for anyone using it.

In this post, we outline the law regarding the use of the dark web, how it is used for criminal activity, the sort of penalties you can face for an associated offence and what your options are if you are facing investigation and prosecution.

What is the dark web?

The dark web is a part of the internet which is not indexed by search engines and is only accessible through specialised web browsers, such as Tor (The Onion Router). It is often used to keep internet activity anonymous and private.

For this reason, the use of the dark web has been commonly associated with illicit illegal activity, such as accessing illegal drugs, prohibited firearms and indecent images including child pornography and extreme pornography.

What is the law on use of the dark web?

The act of using the dark web is not illegal but accessing or hosting illegal websites on the dark web or using the dark web for criminal activity is a punishable offence.

The punishment you receive for accessing certain websites on the dark web will depend on the content contained within said site and what you use it for. For example, the punishment you receive for buying or selling illegal drugs on the dark web will differ compared to accessing or publishing indecent images.

The range of punishments you may receive for some of the most common dark web offences are as follows:

Inadvertently viewing indecent images on the dark web

If you are found guilty of viewing indecent images on the dark web, there are a range of different charges you might face, depending on the circumstances of your individual case.

The maximum sentence you can receive for possession of extreme pornography is up to three years imprisonment. Anyone who is sentenced for at least two years’ imprisonment for an extreme pornography offence will also be placed on the Violent and Sex Offender Register.

With regards to viewing indecent images of children, you will likely be sentenced under the two main offence creating provisions:

  • Section 1 of the Protection of Children Act 1978 (PCA 1978); and
  • Section 160 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 (CJA 1988)

Offences under the Protection of Children Act 1978 include taking, permitting to be taken and making child pornography, distributing child pornography, or possessing child pornography. If anyone is found guilty of committing these sexual offences, they could face a maximum possible sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment.

Offences under the Criminal Justice Act 1988 include possession of child pornography with a maximum sentence of five years’ imprisonment.

Drugs offences related to the dark web

Authorities have been increasingly cracking down on the use of the dark web to solicit illegal drug activities. In 2020, a BBC report revealed that police forces around the world carried out a co-ordinated raid on dark web marketplaces (or darknet markets), seizing 500kg of illegal drugs. As a part of the raids, four people from the UK were arrested.

You can get a fine or prison sentence if you are found guilty of taking, carrying, making or dealing (also called supplying) illegal drugs.

The severity of the punishment you receive will depend on the type of drug, the amount in your possession and whether you had a role in producing or supplying it.

For instance, if you are found in possession of a Class C drug you purchased through the dark web, you will face a maximum of two years in prison, an unlimited fine, or both. By way of contrast, if you are supplying a Class A drug through the dark web, you can face life in prison, an unlimited fine, or both.

A full list of the penalties you can receive for drug offences in the UK can be found on the government website.

Illegal firearm offences related to the dark web

The dark web makes it possible to purchase illegal firearms and ammunition. These are serious offences, reflected by the penalties you might receive if you are found guilty.

The mandatory minimum sentence for an offence related to the possession of an illegal firearm is 5 years’ imprisonment for anyone aged 21 and over. For those aged 18-20, the minimum is 5 years in a young offender institute and 16-17-year olds face a minimum of 3 years in a young offender institute.

In 2019, a teenager from Shropshire was sentenced to 16 years imprisonment after he was found guilty of purchasing a gun and ammunition through the dark web.

What are your rights if you are arrested for using the dark web?

If you are arrested for committing an offence related to the dark web, you will likely be taken to a police station for further questioning.

If the police arrest you, they are required to caution you by using the following words: “You do not have to say anything. But it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence.”

The police must explain exactly why you are being arrested and the crimes they believe you have committed.

You should never answer any questions from the police without a solicitor present.

After a police interview, the police will give you a caution and allow you to leave, or you will be charged and released on bail. A date will then be set for your court appearance.

Get immediate specialist legal advice about using the dark web

If you have been arrested for accessing illegal websites on the dark web, our criminal defence solicitors are on hand to lend their expertise.

You can contact us 24-hours a day, seven days a week for an immediate free initial consultation, expert legal advice and representation.

Our highly experienced criminal defence lawyers offer:

  • 24/7 legal support in person and over the phone, 365 days a year
  • Representation anywhere in England or Wales
  • Accredited Police Station Representatives to support you during a police interview
  • Clear, effective legal advice in any language (see our languages spoken)
  • Local offices in LondonBirmingham or Manchester

If you need immediate advice and representation in relation to a dark web offence, please use our emergency contact numbers:

Birmingham – 07891 777090

Brent – 07836 577556

Camden – 07836 577556

Manchester – 07798 701339

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