How to access .onion websites? And the ones you should

Anton P. | February 10, 2021

.onion websites do not have a shiny badge of honor due to their connection to the dark web. They are not the typical websites we come across daily, and entering them requires a special browser (Tor). The dark web is a tool, and like any instrument, its use depends on the individual holding it. Despite instant assumptions about the dark web, onion websites can have legitimate purposes and serve “the good guys.”

What are .onion websites?

Onion websites are those that exist outside our typical reach. They feature .onion as their domain name and represent the dark web layer of the internet. The latter is an infamous hangout for cybercriminals attempting to hide behind the onion-like layers of anonymity. Tor, as a standalone application, has the potential to improve your digital privacy. However, users might not necessarily turn to it for protection due to lack of knowledge about how it works.

Tor encrypts traffic and reroutes it through a chain of network nodes (or onion servers). However, while Tor pursues a mission to protect the vulnerable, it also attracts a mischievous crowd. Thus, it is understandable why people might see Tor and onion websites as a set of evil underground lairs fostering criminals. As a result, not many netizens will choose to use it regularly (or at all).

Additionally, you might believe that .onion websites are a part of a vast network. In reality, the surface web outnumbers the dark web without much of a fight. In a 2019 study, researchers detected 55,000 onion websites, of which only 15% were live. Thus, compared to 400 million surface websites alive and kicking in 2021, the dark web shrinks instantly. Of course, these numbers might fluctuate, with new websites spawning and others shutting down. However, it should showcase that onion websites represent a tiny fraction of the internet.

Word of caution

Before you explore the hidden portion of the internet, note that criminal activities thrive in this ecosystem. Flying too close to the sun is relatively easy, and you might endanger your security along the way. You could run into scams, offensive content, or have your identity compromised. Thus, it is essential to stay on the safe path and avoid wandering around too much on the dark web.

How to access onion websites?

As mentioned before, you need a Tor browser to access the onion websites. The program is free and relatively easy to use. Since creators based Tor on Mozilla Firefox, you might notice some correlations between the two. If you use Tor in a country that blocks it, you can configure it to connect to a bridge. You can also manipulate the security settings:

  • Standard. Suitable for most users, it loads websites as intended.
  • Safer. This mode blocks JavaScript on non-HTTPS websites. Thus, it disables various web elements such as fonts and math symbols, and media content is click-to-play.
  • Safest. This setting will disable JavaScript on all visited websites. You won’t see fonts, icons, math symbols, and images. Additionally, media content is also click-to-play.

In recent years, other browsers have implemented onion routing as well. Brave is a strong contender when it comes to switching between Tor-like protection and casual browsing. Brave does reroute you through three different nodes on the Tor network. However, experts note that it does not supply the same level of security. Thus, you are better off using Tor as a standalone program. The Brave-based option might work if your primary concern is to evade the eye of your Internet Service Provider. However, even Brave creators note that if you are after leak-proof privacy, Tor is more suitable.

Why would you want to access onion websites?

Anonymity-granting technologies such as Tor have a dual-use nature. Some of them might use it as a cloak to conceal illicit activities. Others rely on it for privacy and censorship-circumvention. Thus, visiting onion websites might mean that people exercise their rights to access information freely.

To facilitate this need, many global news organizations have created .onion websites to serve and accept information. The New York Times supplied this version in 2017 to unite people worldwide, regardless of political regimes. ProPublica claims to have created their onion website for the same purpose. In fact, in 2016, it became the first news outlet to test the dark web waters. In the next few years, many news sites would follow their example, including BBC News, Deutsche Welle, Mada Masr, and Buzzfeed. In 2019, even the CIA set up its services for Tor as a secure communication channel for sharing information.

Some onion websites contribute to digital correspondence free from surveillance. Riseup provides email and chat services to people collaborating and discussing controversial subjects. Of course, it could as well be a tool used to obviate the common pitfalls and tracking from more traditional providers. Other contributions to polishing the dark web name include The Hidden Wiki, a lookalike of Wikipedia. Since The Hidden Wiki is a community-edited resource, note that it might contain links that lead to dubious onion websites. Thus, Daniel’s Onion Link List might supply a slightly safer Tor directory. However, remember to read each link description carefully.

Other interesting onion websites include:

  • Hidden Answers. If you like Reddit, Hidden Answers will be right up your alley. It is a question-answer-based website, allowing people to get opinions on various subjects.
  • DuckDuckGo. If you use Tor for casual browsing, you should drop popular search engines. DuckDuckGo is a private source of information, and it can serve you more efficiently than Google.
  • Facebook. The tech giant also supplies an onion version of Facebook. It does provide a more private experience, shielding you from snooping and surveillance from commercial and state agencies. However, its biggest benefit is that people can access Facebook from heavily-censored regions.
  • Archive.today. This Tor-based service is also one of the onion websites you can visit. Its main purpose is to preserve information from various websites. Thus, you can find insights that might no longer be available.

Final notes on onion websites and Tor

Many initiatives worldwide use onion websites as an instrument to guarantee the distribution of critical information. For human rights activists, whistleblowers, and dissidents, the Tor ecosystem is a safe haven. It is the secure channel to exchange stories that otherwise would remain in the dark. However, while Tor elevates browsing with anonymity and privacy, it probably won’t become your go-to browser. It is typically much slower, and you might turn to it only under particular circumstances.

Additionally, many experts suggest its potential downsides when it comes to using a VPN and Tor simultaneously. You might need to perform additional configurations to reassure that everything runs smoothly. However, a VPN will serve you greatly when it comes to browsing the surface web. It performs traffic encryption and hides your IP address, two features mirroring Tor. Thus, it might unlock access to services, anonymize your experience, and prevent snooping online.

Anton P.

Anton P.

Former chef and the head of Atlas VPN blog team. He's an experienced cybersecurity expert with a background of technical content writing.

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