Recently, the powers that be flexed their muscles and shut down the online black market the ‘Silk Road’. Its alleged founder Ross William Ulbricht aka the online pseudonym “Dread Pirate Roberts” was arrested earlier this month and faces some hefty charges against his name including drug trafficking, soliciting murder, facilitating computer hacking and money laundering. Silk Road has been around for over two years but it has only really been getting mainstream news attention for the past month or so. Following this spike in interest, Silk Road and the technology associated is getting a bad rep and an unfairly negative image due to misinformation and fear mongering. As well as this, its closure marks another depressing chapter in the ‘War on Drugs’ epic that keeps getting longer and keeps making less sense as it goes along.
Silk Road was most notorious for being a marketplace for those wanting to do their illegal narcotics shopping from the safety and comfort of their own home instead of having to venture to the wrong side of the tracks. It was the black-market-Amazon; you could get what you wanted when you wanted it, delivered straight to your door. It featured an eBay style interface of buyers and sellers with their own individual feedback ratings, so that you could be rest assured whatever narcotics you purchased would be better and safer than whatever that guy that always wears a North Face jacket and apparently never sleeps was selling in your local area.
Items listed on Silk Road were not limited to just drugs and included books, clothes, computer equipment, collectables, fireworks and forged documents but the vast majority of items were of the illegal nature. As it was illegal goods that most people searching down the Silk Road were after, the website was hidden away as part of the ‘deep web’ with the only way to access it being through anonymous browsing clients and the only way to purchase items being crypto-currency.
Media attention has broadly mentioned two legal technologies that are crucial for anyone’s journey down the Silk Road – Tor and Bitcoins. Tor is software that enables online anonymity by relaying online net traffic so that it is hidden away from the Internet’s many all-seeing eyes. Bitcoins are an open-source, peer-to-peer electronic currency purchased using traditional currencies and is free from a central issuing authority and transactions bypass financial institutions. The media’s spin on these innovations has largely been negative, with headlines along the lines of ‘look at all the real bad things this technology is being used for!’ – this smear is unfair and ill-informed. Tor and Bitcoins have more uses beyond shady transactions and they benefit millions around the world and the number of people using them both continues to grow.
The majority of the world doesn’t live in a position of freedom or privilege and Tor helps level the playing field. It allows users to communicate freely when in the web space of restrictive regimes, it can evade monitoring by those using 1984 as a guidebook and as well spread information to citizens that are otherwise restricted. The other key ingredient to the Silk Road experience is Bitcoins, an ever-growing crypto-currency. Bitcoins are popular as they are free from third-party mediators and domestic economic problems, which means that costs are kept down and transactions are easier to do and are more secure. They are being used to pay for all sorts of goods and services online with more retailers signing up to them by the day.
Aside from the misinformation about the technologies involved, the closing of Silk Road is just another chapter in the epic tome of the failed war on drugs – a costly war that has raged for over 40 years and has perpetuated many social ills that it apparently aims to prevent. There is a growing consensus around the world from medical experts, politicians and former legislators that the war on drugs is as useful as pissing into the wind. The deep web is vaster than the ocean floor and already other black markets are up and running, taking Silk Road’s place and evidencing the failings of current drug legislation.
Drug dealing is a dangerous world because of its illegality; Silk Road created an environment that removed a lot of the potential high-risk perilous situations and scenarios associated with the drugs trade. The middleman was taken out, so was the shady back alley and the potentially hazardous batch. With Silk Road there was no threat of violence and little chance of being ripped off – when the US government shut down Silk Road it forced users back onto the streets and in to the criminal underworld.
Voices against current drugs legislation are growing louder and change could be soon around the corner; the closure of Silk Road is definitely something that more voices should shout louder about.