You've probably heard the term 'darknet' thrown around a lot. It seems to be a buzzword that either invokes fear or a sense of l33t h4ck3r skills. A lot of this attention has been focused on Tor and hidden services such as the Silk Road, though Tor is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to 'darknets'. I2P is another large anonymizing network that is similar to Tor, but also has some distinct differences. In this article we will remove the confusion surrounding darknets, and show you exactly how you can get onto one of the best networks out there.

I2P is an anonymous overlay network; a network within a network. It is intended to protect communication from dragnet surveillance and monitoring by third parties such as ISPs. I2P is used by many people who care about their privacy: activists, oppressed people, journalists and whistleblowers, as well as the average person.

No network can be "perfectly anonymous". The continued goal of I2P is to make attacks more and more difficult to mount. Its anonymity will get stronger as the size of the network increases and with ongoing academic review. The network itself is strictly message based (a la IP), but there is a library available to allow reliable streaming communication on top of it. All communication is end to end encrypted (in total there are four layers of encryption used when sending a message), and even the end points ("destinations") are cryptographic identifiers (essentially a pair of public keys).

Most of the time anonymizing networks serve as an effective tool for torrenting copyrighted data. Torrenting is very popular, but it’s risky that it’s not anonymous, and that’s where networks like VPN and I2P come in handy.

I2P torrenting is becoming increasingly popular, and there is a torrent client exclusively designed for I2P. I2PSnark is basically a torrent client for the I2P network that uses the BitTorrent protocol. It is also a torrent creator that delivers metainfo.torrent files equipped with an in-built tracker.

Within the I2P network, applications are not restricted in how they can communicate - those that typically use UDP can make use of the base I2P functionality, and those that typically use TCP can use the TCP-like streaming library. We have a generic TCP/I2P bridge application ("I2PTunnel") that enables people to forward TCP streams into the I2P network as well as to receive streams out of the network and forward them towards a specific TCP/IP address.

I2PTunnel is currently used to let people run their own anonymous website ("eepsite") by running a normal webserver and pointing an I2PTunnel 'server' at it, which people can access anonymously over I2P with a normal web browser by running an I2PTunnel HTTP proxy ("eepproxy"). In addition, we use the same technique to run an anonymous IRC network (where the IRC server is hosted anonymously, and standard IRC clients use an I2PTunnel to contact it). There are other application development efforts going on as well, such as one to build an optimized swarming file transfer application (a la BitTorrent), a distributed data store (a la Freenet / MNet), and a blogging system (a fully distributed LiveJournal), but those are not ready for use yet.

Like I said at the beginning of the article, a lot of people confuse IP2 with Tor. Here are several ways in which the two differ:

  • 2P wasn’t initially made with the Clearnet (normal internet) in mind. As such, it offers its users few options to connect to the Clearnet using the network. Tor, on the other hand, allows users to browse the Clearnet anonymously using its browser.
  • Tor uses onion routing to pass the information anonymously through its network. I2P uses what is known as Garlic Routing.
  • Tor is a directory-based anonymizing network, which means that it has a centralized point that manages the overall network. I2P, however, is decentralized and relies on its users to store their content on their systems. You will only be able to access an I2P eepsite (the network’s version of a website) if the content creator is online.
  • Because of its beta level, I2P is more prone to have bugs in its program than Tor.
  • Tor has been an established anonymizing network for years now and has garnered a large user base. I2P, on the other hand, is still in its beta form and has yet to reach a user base that would give it the authority of Tor and other darkness.

How to Set Up the I2P Network

If you look for installation guides online, you’ll usually come to the same conclusion I did: developers don’t write in a way non-developers can understand. Seeing as I2P is open-sourced, most of the installation guides you’ll see were written by developers, and as such are a little confusing.

The easiest way to use I2P is by downloading and installing the official install package. Once installed, open Start I2P. This will open a locally hosted web page in internet Explorer, the I2P default browser (you can change this later). This is the I2P Router Console, or in other words, the virtual router used to maintain your I2P connection. You’ll also notice the I2P Service command window, just ignore this and leave it running in the background.

The I2P service can take a few minutes to get up and running, especially during the first boot. Take the time to configure your bandwidth settings. I2P allows its users to create and host hidden websites, known as “eepsites.” If you want to access an eepsite, you’ll need to set your browser to use the specific I2P proxy.

You should now be connected to an eepsite, and are ready to explore the I2P darknet. A good place to start finding new eepsites is the eepsite.com search engine. Enjoy!

A great deal of information (including info on configuring firewall ports) is available from the main website but like I said earlier, it is beyond the scope of this beginner’s guide. If you have further questions about I2P, what it is good for, and what alternatives are out there, then read on!

There are a few things you can do with I2P as a beginner without having to get too technical.

Mail

Users have access to what is known as I2P-Bote, a fully decentralized and distributed anonymous email system that primarily focuses on security. Users also have access to Susimail, a pseudo-anonymous web-based email client that focuses on security and privacy.

Eepsites

Eepsites are the I2P equivalent of a Tor Hidden Service: they are websites hosted on the I2P network, whose operators can be anonymous. Like hidden services, these sites cannot be connected to off the I2P network. Unlike Tor hidden services, their web addresses are actually readable, with the domain of i2p at the end. For example, salt.i2p is an eepsite which "is a gathering space celebrating crypto and infoanarchy", and is only available on the I2P network. These Eepsites may not be of huge interest to many, but if you want to host an Anarchist, Communist, or hell, even Environmentalist website anonymously, this is a good way to do it.

Torrent

I2P actively encourages Torrenting as part of its freedom of speech motto. That being said, torrenting off the network itself is limited to whatever is available on the network. While you won’t be able to find the same amount of torrentable content as on the clearnet, you will still have a decent choice of files to download. If the idea of limited content seems horrible to you, you can use Vuze (torrent program) and enable its I2P addon to torrent anonymously.

IRC (Internet Relay Chat)

If you're not already familiar, IRC's are basically chat rooms online, and I2P has an IRC service that allows users to chat anonymously. More advanced users can use IRC to access I2P’s chatrooms. As this requires to you have an IRC client already installed on your system. The I2P IRC channels are full of some extremely intelligent people that spawn some great discussions, interspersed with hilarious sarcasm. I've never been a huge IRC user, but I2P chats stand out as some of the best you'll see. The best part is that I2P's anonymity offers a near-perfect sense of freedom of speech. Often controversial topics are talked about in these channels, but nobody is afraid of offering what may be a very valid, but unpopular opinion, pushing you to explore new ideas from new perspectives.

To wind up, just as with VPN and Tor, I2P does not hide the fact that you are using the service, but does make it very hard to discover what you get up to when connected to it. The result is that if using hidden services, I2P is both much faster than using Tor (it was designed with P2P downloading in mind), more secure, and more robust. So, if your intent is to gain anonymity on the internet by using a proxy, then Tor is the better choice. I2P only grudgingly incorporates the ability to connect to the clear net at all, and its ability to do so is unreliable. However, if you’re looking to run a full-on dark web site that remains as hidden as possible, I2P may be the better choice.