The deep web, drug deals and distributed markets.


On Thursday a conglomeration of law enforcement agencies including the FBI, Homeland Security and Europol seized the deep web drug marketplace Silk Road 2.0, just over a year after the takedown of the original Silk Road site. San Franciscan Blake Benthall was arrested as site's alleged operator (under the alias ‘Defcon’), and charged with narcotics trafficking as well as conspiracy charges related to money laundering, computer hacking, and trafficking fraudulent documents. The authorities allege that Silk Road 2.0 had sales of $8million each month, around 150,000 active users, and had facilitated the distribution of hundreds of kilos of illegal drugs across the globe. The bust formed part of ‘Operation Onymous’, a ‘scorched-earth purge of the internet underground’ which led to the arrest of 17 people, the seizure of 414 hidden ‘.onion’ domains, and the shutdown of a number of other deep web markets. Law enforcement unsurprisingly refuse to reveal how they managed such a raid, leaving to some worry that they have been able to bypass the protections of the anonymizing software Tor, which is used to access deep web sites and to obscure users' identities and location.

Despite the success of Operation Onymous, many deep web markets remain online. Activists liken the shutdown of hidden marketplaces to a hydra: every time a site is taken down others spring up in their place, and thrive from the media publicity of busts. Indeed, the number of drug listings on hidden marketplaces has grown significantly following the takedown of the original Silk Road. Regardless, law enforcement is determined to stamp out the sites, with a representative from Europol warning  “we’re a well-oiled machine. It won’t be risk-free to run services [like these] anymore’.

But what if there was no-one responsible for running such services? Sites like the Silk Roads met their demise because they have a centralized point of failure — get to the server and you can seize the site. Allegedly, cryptographic chunks of Silk Road 2.0’s source code had been pre-emptively distributed to 500 locations across the globe, to enable the site’s relaunch in the case of a takedown. Given the far-reaching impact of Operation Onymous, whether this happens or not remains to be seen.

To be truly immune to government takedown, a marketplace would have to have a decentralized, distributed structure, much like torrent networks and the bitcoin protocol. Enter OpenBazaar, which uses peer-to-peer technology to bring 'secure, decentralized  markets to the masses.' In running the OpenBazaar program, each computer becomes a node in a distributed network where users can communicate directly with one another. A reputation system will allow even pseudonymous users to build up trust in their identity, and naturally, all transactions are done in bitcoin.

The biggest issues plaguing hidden marketplaces are those of trust and enforcement; if goods or payment fail to materialize, you can hardly just contact the authorities. Some sites get around this problem by offering an escrow service, with the money being centrally held until a buyer confirms their goods have arrived. The problem with this approach is that it leaves customer's money vulnerable to scams, hacks, and state seizure. With a decentralized system like OpenBazaar, no such central escrow system is possible. Instead, buyer and seller nominate a third party 'arbiter' (who could be another buyer, seller, or a professional arbiter for the site) to preside over the transaction. Payment is initially sent to a multi-signature bitcoin wallet, jointly controlled by the buyer, seller and arbiter. Funds can only be released from this account to the seller when 2 of the 3 signatories agree to it, allowing the arbiter to adjudicate any dispute.

In such a distributed system, there’s no central body to authorize posts and transactions. There’s also no central server to target. Law enforcement would have to go after all buyers, sellers and computers running the OpenBazaar software to bring the system down.

OpenBazaar is still in beta mode, with a full release expected in early 2015. Teething problems are likely and the design could prove problematic; even within highly decentralized systems there’s a tendency towards the concentration of power, and whilst robust, decentralized networks are often inefficient and expensive to maintain. There's no doubt the authorities are watching, though, and it will be interesting to see their reaction should OpenBazaar succeed.

The software is a re-work of the edgier DarkMarket concept developed at a Toronto hackathon earlier this year, and its developers are keen to highlight its use for selling things like outlawed books and unpasteurized milk over drugs and guns. Certainly, there's value in any global bitcoin marketplace which avoids punitive exchange rates and transfer fees, and like the Lex Mercatoria, can be relied on to provide a level of transactional security when state institutions can not. However, whatever its legitimate uses no state will be comfortable with the idea of a censorship-proof site. The problem for them is that they might just have to get used to it.