Silk Road: the limits of control

If you’re going to read one article on the web today, it should definitely be the interview published by Forbes with The Dread Pirate Roberts, the supposedly anonymous manager of Silk Road, the web’s biggest black market site.

The Dread Pirate Roberts is a character in the film The Princess Bride who periodically changes his crew, hands his name onto another captain, and retires with his booty. The interview with Andy Greenberg in Forbes is a masterpiece of journalistic endeavor. Greenberg is one of the most difficult people in the world to talk to, and the article provides an invaluable understanding of Silk Road, following in the footsteps of Gawker’s Adrian Chen about what has been described as: “The underground website where you can buy any drug imaginable“, covered by academic Nicolas Christin in “Traveling the Silk Road: A measurement analysis of a large anonymous online marketplace“ or detailed in the exhaustive work Silk Road: theory and practice“, by Gwern.

Accessing Silk Road— details can be found on Silk Road link—is only possible through the Tor hidden service, and payment solely through bitcoins. It has been around since the beginning of 2011, and charges a maximum 10 percent on transactions, a figure that drops for larger orders. The site is growing in popularity, suggesting a more than healthy turnover, and despite recent security vulnerabilities and problems related to Tor or problems with the use of bitcoins (now solved) the authorities have not been able to shut it down, at least for the moment.

Silk Road is worthy of study, and raises many interesting academic questions about the web and the limits of control. Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA mark a milestone in the development of the web: for the first time, society is being confronted by the reality that the web has become a place under permanent surveillance, a place where everything we do, everything we say or read is subject to permanent scrutiny. As Snowden himself says, “any unencrypted message over the Internet is being delivered to every intelligence service in the world.”

Cyphering, as argued by Julian Assange in Cypherpunks, seems to be the only way to safeguard our privacy or security, but one that the authorities are doing everything they can to stop. The question cyphering raises is the same as with Silk Road: between protecting our right to free speech and privacy and absolute freedom, where should we stand? Faced with this dilemma, most people are inclined toward the idea of some sort of control exercised through a series of checks and balances to prevent the misuse of power.

Regarding drug trafficking, for example, most positions are balanced, and even include important defenders of greater tolerance and decriminalization who offer very convincing arguments. But as soon as we touch on subjects that the authorities have converted into bogeymen, arguing for greater control against evils such as child pornography and terrorism—copyright protection is now mainly a question of defending commercial interests—things get blurred.

The idea of an internet that is entirely encrypted, beyond the control of any centralized authority, even regarding the management of domain names, or one in which transactions are carried out using a cryptocurrency like Bitcoin, is increasingly viable.

In which case, are we talking about a paradise of civil liberties, or a hell, awash with the worst excesses of human nature? Recent events suggest that the misuse of power could be leading us to an Orwellian nightmare few of us surely want.

Even those who fear such a scenario are still unsure about an internet free of any kind of control. Decades of life under democracy would suggest that the dilemma is not so much deciding who sets the limits, but the absence of a clear separation of powers and an adequate system of checks and balances: most of the problems that have led us to live under a kind of state of emergency, are rooted in the elimination of those checks and balances supposedly due to one reason: terrorism, and which at the time seemed to make sense, but which we now need, more than ever, to reassess. There is no doubt that an informed debate about the phenomenon of Silk Road could help many of us to think about the existing checks and balances in this key dilemma.