By Luther Blissett and J. F. Sebastian of Arkesoul
In February 2015 Ross Ulbricht was convicted of money laundering, computer hacking and conspiracy to traffic narcotics for his role (either with or as Dread Pirate Roberts) in creating and administrating the darknet market Silk Road. For this, U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest sentenced Ulbricht to life in prison without possibility for parole. Why was Ulbricht treated more severely than most murderers and child molesters (not to mention wall street and state criminals who do far more societal harm than all others combined)? The only logical explanation is that they needed to make an example out of him not just for his actions but for what he represented. The draconian sentence sends a message that the government is doubling down on its destructive and wasteful war on drugs and is clearly threatened by agorists (ie. those advocating for a society of voluntary exchanges and counter-economics without violence or authority) who utilize the darknet to make their ideas manifest. To understand the scope of the threat this poses to governments one must understand what the darknet is.
The darknet is an anonymous overlay network accessed through special software, configurations and/or protocols. It was created in the 1970s to designate anonymous networks isolated from ARPANET (an early form of the internet) which, for security purposes, had addresses hidden from network lists and were unresponsive to pings or other inquiries. The World Wide Web content that exists on darknets (known as the dark web) can only be accessed through anonymous browsers such as the Freenet or TOR Browser Bundle. The darknet and dark web are part of the deep web, the content of the World Wide Web not discoverable by means of standard search engines.
Interest in and use of the darknet has grown dramatically since TOR was released to the public in 2003. Much like when the internet was new, the darknet is often slow, though it has more to do with the complex random rerouting necessary for anonymity than the hardware or infrastructure. And like the early internet, the darknet is widely viewed as the new “wild west”. The darknet does attract its share of fringe subcultures including cryptoanarchists, transhumanists, digital pirates, sexual fetishists, drug users and dealers of different types, etc., but the groups that have arguably been the most empowered by the technology are political dissidents such as whistleblowers and activists.
As governments and corporations gain increasing power over the physical realm through laws, economics, violence and surveillance, one of the few remaining options for anyone wanting to bring about systemic change without fear of retribution, is the darknet. The government would of course never openly admit their fear of such a threat, though it’s apparent that law enforcement and intelligence agencies (who behave as if they’re entitled to the right to monitor all activity) are threatened enough even by less overtly political darknet sites such as Silk Road. They may claim concern over drug gang violence and addiction justifies the crackdown, but if that were actually the case they would have ended the war on (some) drugs years ago when more than enough data was available proving harm reduction to be a more humane and effective strategy.
Of course violent and cruel behavior can be found on the darknet, just as it exists offline. One could argue such cases should be investigated in ways that don’t jeopardize the anonymity of all users. What about the safety of victims attempting to evade dangerous individuals and groups? Whistleblowers need anonymity as well if releasing information on crimes committed by people in power.
As law enforcement struggles to defeat darknet anonymity with new tools such as Memex (a data-trawling program), programmers innovate to make darknet sites more decentralized, private, secure, and user friendly. Improved user interface will draw more users to the darknet, especially as awareness of internet privacy and security issues increase. Government efforts to police and regulate the darknet will also increase further as aspects of the darknet become both more mainstream and fringe, the darknet marketplace expands exponentially and improved cryptocurrencies are developed to meet demand.
As is, the Darknet is a system that is continually evolving. And, inasmuch as it poses a threat and a risk to authority, there is friction between the two. On the one hand, there is the axiom for control and security, which often times conflates manipulation with exploitation. On the other, freedom and liberty of expression, which often times conflates a lack of cohesion with relativism.
Regarding the first side of the debate, it’s a natural product of strategic rationality to calculate safe scenarios as to ensure survival. Vertical hierarchies often times result in perverse agendas that funnel the interests of the few on the top. However, these exist to ensure safety for a particular collective. That is the very paradox of government: The criterion for peace, however illusory, is to make up a contract with the State and its people. “I give up certain rights in exchange of safety”. This is game theory: Predict the behavior of others so as to ensure safety. The government fulfills this need through law and order. Let’s minimise risk, and up control as well as safety, which produces a space to live and grow. In this model, the assumption is to always expect the worst, while paradoxically ensuring productivity through an illusory cohesion and identity. In a collective that is afraid of itself, everybody is “doing their part”, but as well miss out on having a say on the big issues. Government is a fail switch for everything absurd, illogical, and different. The infamous saying applies: “Fear what you don’t understand”.
On the other side of the debate, the inverse is suiting. Greater freedom involves having a voice. The trade off is becoming segregated as an outsider, because having an opinion comes with a price. Refusing to accept the “game rules” of “law and order”, is anathema to cohesion and identity. This philosophy is natural to fringe culture, because often times fringe culture is made up of victims of a system that doesn’t respond to the needs and demands of its people. That’s the problem: If everybody played by the rules, including those at the top, then the big illusion would make sense. There’d be intrinsic justice to the operational structures of society. That’s another paradox, power perverts when it should essentially allow and protect human flourishing and expression. That’s what we are taught, right? Civilization is supposed to be good. But it seems more and more evident that we haven’t yet learnt how to keep our governments at bay and working for the people. Because ideas fracture models by confronting power structures of domination and corruption, we essentially have a duty to be creative and protect what we rightfully are as a species. Ideas are revolutionary, because they add to the frame of possibilities and suggest ways in which the old modes of thinking are outdated. They pose a danger for the status quo, insofar as they fragment cultural psyches. They allow people to think. This is not what Government wants. Our freedom in exchange for safety. Censorship in exchange for control. Our voices in exchange for capital.
At odds, therefore, is the fear for different things versus the need for expression. The Darknet is an idea. It’s not perfect. It fails in many ways, particularly in allowing terrible transactions to happen. However, these are already there with or without the Darknet. If the government was smarter, it would learn to cooperate with the Darknet. It would stop trying to silence voices by hammering the stick. It would offer incentives for creativity and solutions. Yes, the Darknet might be a channel for people to do bad things. But it also allows for new and positive changes. Change is good. Change is evolution. We move forward as we learn. At some point, the Darknet will learn how to push the bad and to cohere the good. If we admonish the Darknet we also chastise our right to expression. We need to challenge our governments, and the Darknet meets that demand. One could argue there’s many pressing problems as important (if not more so) as electronic freedom, but few could have as much of an effect on the outcome of every other struggle. Government can’t silence our voices, it must adapt to them. The battle over the Darknet symbolizes a crossroads in history where decisions made now will have an increasingly large impact on our lives in the future. If freedom prevails, we have an opportunity to make a great idea function for an even greater and much more illuminating goal.
Some day, we could be a shining beacon of hope for the oppressed people of the world just as so many oppressed and violated souls have found refuge here already. Will it happen overnight? No. Will it happen in a lifetime? I don’t know. Is it worth fighting for until my last breath. Of course. Once you’ve seen what’s possible, how can you do otherwise? How can you plug yourself into the tax eating, life sucking, violent, sadistic, war mongering, oppressive machine ever again? How can you kneel when you’ve felt the power of your own legs? Felt them stretch and flex as you learn to walk and think as a free person? I would rather live my life in rags now than in golden chains. And now we can have both! Now it is profitable to throw off one’s chains, with amazing crypto technology reducing the risk of doing so dramatically. How many niches have yet to be filled in the world of anonymous online markets? The opportunity to prosper and take part in a revolution of epic proportions is at our fingertips!
I have no one to share my thoughts with in physical space. Security does not permit it, so thanks for listening. I hope my words can be an inspiration just as I am given so much by everyone here.
Dread Pirate Roberts [3/20/2012]