Within the shadowly depths of the darkweb lurks characters of questionable motives. However, there also exist services which have hidden benefits unbeknownst to the average user. Certainly, marketplaces such as the Silk Road secure the identities of individuals with less-than-noble intentions, yet there remains a silver lining among these darkweb services: their ability to provide an alternative to and undermine the profitability of real-world, entrenched organized crime.
The Silk Road makes use of strong encryption, both of our communications and, now with bitcoin, our money supply as well. This cryptographic method of communication and commerce combined make for a formidable opportunity to conduct business outside the grasp of enforcement authorities, which have previously been able to sniff out and crack down on illegal operations within their borders.
Strong encryption not only punctures a glaring hole in the enforcement ability of authorities, but creates a playing field governed by rules, which recognize no man-made laws. In this amoral dimension, the rules of the game have changed completely. No longer can you 'cheat' the system, because the system itself is enforced by the laws of physics and computational science rather than judicial proceedings. This radical reshaping of law is something which has the potential to reshape the very root of our societies.
With the Silk Road and other darkweb marketplaces, drug addicts are no longer required to risk their safety by meeting in person to conduct a deal. There is no danger of physical confrontation, because physical proximity to conduct a transaction is not required.
Further, because the Silk Road is a peer-reviewed community, poor quality goods are sent to the bottom of the barrel where customers generally avoid purchasing. The vendors, who supply goods that do not meet the standards and are perhaps mixed with more lethal substances, are ostracized from conducting business and using these services.
Over time, this results in a higher-quality of product, and therefore less danger upon consumption by the drug user. Reports suggest drugs from these hidden marketplaces were, and continue to be, less contaminated.
“Silk Road doesn't really sell drugs. It sells insurance and financial products. It doesn't really matter whether you’re selling T-shirts or cocaine. The business model is to commoditize security.”
- Nicolas Christin, Carnegie Mellon Economics Professor
War on drugs
The greatest benefit of these hidden services however, comes not on a micro level between users, but on the aggregate ability to undercut and distribute the profitability of the drug industry that is artificially sustained by laws forbidding its proliferation - which, to a large extend, have been futile to begin with.
The violence associated with drugs is not a consequence of the product itself, but rather its illegality.
The government shutting down these darkweb services represents law enforcement going after the low-hanging fruit, deciding to crack down on the safest way yet devised for acquiring substances, which have not been federally approved. Without the proper toolkit to fight the expansive demand for such services, traditional law enforcement holds no chance at overcoming technologies which use strong encryption to bypass their regulations. These types of technologies, namely PGP and cryptocurrency, have opened up a new front in law enforcement and the 'war on drugs'.
If the Silk Road only made up estimated annual revenues of US$30 - $45 million, which represents roughly 0.075% of the annual US$60 billion drug trade in the United States alone, why focus so fervently on its demise? Perhaps preventing social harms was never the case for seizing such operations as the Silk Road, given that these businesses offer the safest way of drug proliferation we've ever seen. Government agencies go after an easy target, and in doing so keep the consolidation of power among existing, high-violence cartels.
Even if drug enforcement agents take down the hidden services such as the Silk Road, and put its mastermind(s) behind bars, they will return. No amount of incarceration will snuff out the economic opportunity and the ideological principle that accompanies unhindered access to illicit substances. Each time a darkweb marketplace is squashed, another returns in its wake. This time, only stronger, having learned from its predecessor's mistakes.
‘Big scary jungle’
Law enforcement agencies have never encountered a breed quite like the internet's darkweb marketplaces. Combined with the tools of encrypted messaging and money, their efforts to win the 'war on drugs' will almost certainly be in vain.
“We are like a little seed in a big jungle that has just broken the surface of the forest floor," Dread Pirate Roberts himself once wrote, "It’s a big, scary jungle with lots of dangerous creatures, each honed by evolution to survive in the hostile environment known as human society. But the environment is rapidly changing, and the jungle has never seen a species quite like the Silk Road.”
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