The Silk Road is an Evil We Have to Live With if We Want a Free Society

By James O Malley on at

Last week Ross Ulbricht - also known as pseudonym Dread Pirate Roberts - was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in jail because he founded the “Silk Road”, a website on the so-called “dark web”. That was basically eBay for all of the illegal stuff you might ever want or need.

The way it worked was rather clever. The whole site was anonymised, requiring the use of the secretive Tor network, and payments were made in Bitcoin rather than Paypal. And the historian within me can’t help but be a little impressed with the name, calling back to the ancient east-west trade route that crossed Asia.

The response to the jailing has been mixed - with some commentators arguing that the punishment is unfairly harsh for just the guy who set up the website. After all, he wasn’t providing the drugs and guns, just merely providing a platform on which other people could buy and sell them. Of course, on the other hand - it isn’t like he thought the secretive website was trading Beanie Babies.

As you might imagine, when Ulbricht was arrested, the site was taken down - but just as The Pirate Bay is the whack-a-mole that won’t die, several newer iterations of The Silk Road reappeared quickly. Apparently like The Pirate Bay, the Silk Road 2.0’s new owner (also going by the Dread Pirate Roberts moniker) set it up so that the site distributes copies of its source code, so that when taken down, it can easily be revived by someone else.

Ammunition for the Snooper's Charter

This story comes at an interesting time for privacy campaigners. And by “interesting”, I mean “potentially terrible”, as it comes just as there is renewed interest in government surveillance: This week the American congress has voted to (temporarily) suspend blanket wiretapping - and the new Tory government in Britain looks set to once again attempt to pass the so-called “Snooper’s Charter”, which would legitimate government mass surveillance.

The reason this could be terrible is clear: Even though (as is my view) the facts and the principles may be on the side of the privacy campaigners, it makes it much tougher to argue. After all - like it or not, unlike a figure like Edward Snowden, Ulbricht wasn’t doing something quite so responsible.

Even if you disagree with Snowden leaking what he did, you can at least appreciate that he did it through the closest approximation to the ‘correct channels’ that whistleblowers have: He went to a journalist, who worked with a respectable newspaper to process, check and release information in a careful and considered way. Ulbricht, on the other hand, was helping shifty characters buy guns. What better poster-figure could there be for a kindly government protecting its citizens than a drugs kingpin like Ulbricht?

On the face of it, you might think this is a fairly compelling argument too: why should bad guys be able to easily do bad stuff on the dark web? Shouldn’t we more closely control the places where terrorists can go to plan atrocities? And so on. David Cameron seems convinced too - earlier this year he suggested legislating to allow government access to encrypted data, which would be a terrible idea.

But here’s the thing that nobody - especially politicians - like to admit: It probably isn’t possible to do anything about the Silk Road.

The Trade Off

The unfortunately reality for both sides in this perennial debate is that at its heart is the old trade off between security and liberty. That is to say, if you want to ensure that terrorists and drug dealers don’t succeed, then the most effective option is to tightly control circumstances so they can’t act without the state knowing - but it comes at the cost of our liberty and privacy more broadly. Conversely, you can have all of the privacy you like - but there’s an increased risk that the bad guys will exploit this. The trade off is that society must choose where to draw the line between these two mutually desirable, but fundamentally incompatible outcomes.

And whether we realise or not, these choices are implicit in how society works. The reason we don’t get patted down whenever we board a train is because we implicitly accept a slightly increased risk of terrorist attack - and the reason we do get x-rayed when catching a plane is because at airports we’ve chosen to be slightly more cautious.

A good trade-off analogous to this could be the debate over state-backed regulation of the press following the Leveson Report. We all watched in horror a few years ago as we learned about the phone hacking revelations, and there was a very definite sense that something must be done - but when it comes to figuring out what to do, the proposed solution is completely unworkable. Sure, we can impose draconian regulation on published content - but given how wide the definition of “published” would have to be cast, it would be the de-facto introduction of regulation of all internet speech, with anything less not actually solving the problem the law would be created to solve. Whilst doing something about the phone hackers sounds like a good thing to do - in practice, our society’s hands are tied.

The Silk Road is much the same - we can either outlaw encryption and blanket monitor all internet traffic, meaning we have no privacy and no security - or we can opt to live in a free society,  but with the Silk Road causing problems in the background.

No Solution

The Silk Road is essentially a new problem for society. Never before in history have we had an anonymised, encrypted trading network that would link up illegal arms dealers across the world. And when a new problem arises, our gut assumption is that something must be done.

Unfortunately though, what we might need to admit, but what politicians can’t, is that some new problems don’t have feasible solutions. The Silk Road might be horrible, but it could be a necessary evil we have to live with, if we don’t want to fundamentally change how we live.

Image Credit: Wikipedia (Modified).