Silk Road was shut last year with the arrest of Ross Ulbricht, the 29-year-old American whom investigators believe to be Dread Pirate Roberts, the site’s founder. Mr Ulbricht is due to stand trial in New York next January on charges that include computer hacking and money laundering.
But law enforcers who predicted that Silk Road’s demise would mark the beginning of the end for online black-market bazaars were wrong. Instead, dozens of dark-net Amazons and eBays (also known as crypto-markets) have sprung up to fill the void. They are not only proving remarkably resilient but expanding their offerings and growing more sophisticated.
The largest market until August, Silk Road 2.0, has been overtaken by two upstarts, Agora and Evolution, whose combined listings have grown by 20% in the past two months. Illegal and prescription drugs are the largest product category. Silk Road 2.0, whose operators are avowedly libertarian, focuses almost exclusively on weed, powders and pills. Agora, whose mascot is an armed bandit, sells weapons, too. These are marketed mostly to Europeans, who face strict gun-control laws.
The fastest-growing of the big three, Evolution, is the least principled. Though, like the others, it bans child pornography, it hawks stolen credit-card, debit-card and medical information, guns and fake IDs and university diplomas. One-fifth of its listings are in its “Fraud” section or in “Guides and Tutorials”, which often explain how to commit crimes.
A recent study by researchers at the University of Manchester and the University of Montreal concluded that (the old) Silk Road prevented violence associated with the illegal drug trade. It is, or it should be, just a matter of common sense to conclude that principled crypto-markets can do much more good than harm. Reducing violence and physical damage to people should be considered as much more important than trying to punish victimless crimes in pointless “Wars on Drugs.”
Crackdowns on principled operators can only result in the emergence and rapid growth of unprincipled ones. Some see Evolution as a worrying sign that cyber-criminals are looking to fuse their real crimes with the victimless online drugs trade. That’s not unexpected, for bans on victimless recreational activities can only push them fully in the criminal underworld, where real crimes are committed. I don’t want to get too political here, but sometimes I wonder what it is that “our” lawmakers really want.
The book “The Dark Net,” recently published by William Heinemann, tells the story of a vast and often hidden network of sites, communities and cultures where freedom is pushed to its limits, and where people can be anyone, or do anything, they want.
Based on extensive first-hand experience, exclusive interviews and shocking documentary evidence, the book offers a startling glimpse of human nature under the conditions of freedom and anonymity, and shines a light on an enigmatic and ever-changing world, which is much closer than we think. The author, Jamie Bartlett, is the Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at the think tank Demos, where he specialises in online social movements and the impact of technology on society. He lives in London.
Yesterday the BBC aired a documentary on the Dark Net. In the first of a series of six episodes on cybercrimes, titled “Darknets,” Ben Hammersley delves into the dark world of hacking and looks at the world of alter egos, darknets and cryptocurrencies. The documentary is streamed on demand by the BBC and can also be downloaded, but unfortunately BBC iPlayer TV programmes are available to play in the UK only. That sounds frankly ridiculous in the 21st century, but I am sure that all episodes will soon be available on the Dark Net and the torrent sites.
What do you think of the Dark Net? Comment below!
Images from William Heinemann and Shutterstock.