There are three things you can count on in life: Death, taxes, and people buying drugs on the internet. Yesterday, the FBI seized black market website Silk Road 2.0 and charged the alleged admin Blake Benthall in federal court, trumpeting its bust with a sassy takedown notice.
This is a blow to the cocaine information superhighway crowd, sure, but don't expect digital dealers to go cold turkey anytime soon. Within a few hours, "Silk Road 3 Reloaded" (http://qxvfcavhse45ckpw.onion/login.php) went live, though as the Daily Dot points out, it's actually an existing drug bazaar rebranded to capitalise on the post-raid hype. But even if 3.0 turns into 4.0 turns into 5.0, Silk Road and its ilk aren't the future of deep web contraband. More likely, the latest bust will only buoy a new wave of decentralised markets.
I talked to Carlos Lopez (a pseudonym, naturally), a prominent darknet vendor, about what the future of darknet drug deals looks like after the raid. "For any site nowadays longevity is vital, and for me as a vendor thinking long-term, and for me to take it seriously, it would need to be decentralized," he told me over encrypted email.
Peer-to-peer markets will not have a "Dread Pirate Roberts" at the helm. Without a figurehead/operator to arrest and a main data centre, it would be far more difficult for law enforcement to seize a decentralised dark market. Using this model, people could create any number of different markets, and law enforcement would have to cast a far wider net to arrest vendors and buyers instead of going after admin. (And that will probably happen, but it will declaw any drug bust PR.)
"The revolution that DPR (alleged Ross Albricht) started is continuing unabated, even though the mantel will probably be taken up by another entity," said Lopez.
There is already one decentralized market gaining support after this raid, called OpenBazaar. It's not meant to be a hub of drug sales; it's meant to be an eBay rival. OpenBazaar wants to work for all peer-to-peer commerce, and while markets like Silk Road and Evolution focused on illegal product sales, OpenBazaar does not. That doesn't mean that people can't use it to sell drugs, though. They very much could. And when they do, it'll be harder for law enforcement to arrest a figurehead, because there won't be one.
OpenBazaar isn't ready for secure transactions yet, and it's still in beta. But it has a savvy team of volunteer developers prepping it, including Google software engineer Dionysus Zindros. It could represent an interesting development for peer-to-peer transactions of all types, but since the darknet's drug community is currently without a secure home, it could also turn into a safer option for former Silk Road vendors and buyers.
And they need one. The FBI is correct when it says the Silk Road is a road to prison. Selling drugs is illegal, even if you know how to use Tor, and law enforcement is more aggressive than ever at picking these markets off.
Along with Silk Road 2, two other darknet bazaars, Cloud9 and Hydra, were also seized this week as part of a joint operation between the FBI and Interpol known as "Onymous." Later, the forum of a defunct market called Cannabis Road was also seized, emphasising that law enforcement are interested in scouring through comments to find participants, not just in the operators. They mean business.
There are still enough options functioning that vendors and buyers can just hopscotch to the next one when these seizures happen. Markets like Evolution and Agora evaded seizure (unless, of course, they're honeypots). But this constellation of raids is not the last we'll see.
Top image: Screengrab via Tor