Silk Road brought the rigours of the marketplace to the unruly, unregulated and dangerous process of buying illegal drugs. Just like the major ecommerce sites on the 'normal' web, Silk Road operated a five star rating customer feedback system. Driven by the desire to be profitable, drug pushers became customer service focused purveyors of high quality goods.
Purchases arrived as specified, on time and supported by friendly staff advice. Product quality was assured by purity ratings. For the more discerning customer, fair trade and organic products were available, with retailers investing a level of profit in local community education projects in places such as Guatemala. What's not to like about the dark net?
Jamie Bartlett is the Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at the think tank Demos. Whilst obviously very intelligent, he doesn't have a think tank wonk persona. He's more of a cross between Russell Brand and Mark Thomas. Jamie was talking about his insights and experiences from writing his recently published book, The Dark Net, at an event organised by The Register - an outstandingly good tech website.
The dark net is anonymous. It uses software called Tor to make both websites and people (or, more accurately, their IP addresses) anonymous. The name Tor is derived from The Onion Router developed by the US Naval Research Laboratory and later Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA); the organisation that developed the internet. It was created so that intelligence services could join internet discussions without people knowing it was them. However the incredibly complex software, which ensured anonymity online, was only available to the intelligence services, giving the game away somewhat when someone turned up 'anonymous.' Tor therefore got released as open source software.
The Tor project has won much praise. For example, it ensures privacy and anonymity to those living in oppressive regimes. Like the internet in general, Tor furthers Western principles of free speech and democracy, which helps explain its American defence funding. However, to lean on a cliché, one man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter. Furthermore, the US tax-funded software also gives criminals and others a very secure way to ply their trade or further their nefarious interests.
Through Jamie's dark net research - encompassing not just drugs, but the likes of neo-Nazis, sex, pro-anorexia, trolls, crowd-sourced funding for assassinations and pro-suicide sites - what becomes obvious is just how complicated and nuanced things are on the dark net and, of course, in life itself.
The dark net is not black and white
Updated morality questions, such as whether it's the webcam girls or the punters that are being manipulated, are easy enough to understand. That the dark net offers a safer way to buy drugs (that'll only be purchased on street corners otherwise) creates far newer moral dilemmas.
France recently declared that it was clamping down on pro-anorexia sites (a ridiculous commitment given it's impossible to enforce). Given that the majority of pro-anorexia sites are started by people suffering from anorexia, as opposed to some form of deliberate manipulation, quite how that is meant to help is far from obvious. Surely, Jamie argues, it would be more effective for the authorities to embrace the dark net and create a Samaritans-like model to participate in discussions with the aim of offering help, support and guidance.
The issue of child porn doesn't escape Jamie's book, although it was brushed over on the night. Suffice to say, there are areas of the dark net where it is very easy to make a judgement (making a solution, sadly, is far more complicated).
By the end of a thoroughly entertaining night - with great story telling, good humour and a buffet that included three bowls of (uneaten) mussels (bizarre!) - it felt like we'd been in a tech-led episode of The Moral Maze. Is the dark net influencing modern life, or is it just making it a little easier to see what has previously been in the shadows?
There are always moral panics around new media, from printing (when the debate was 'will people lose the ability to remember things?') through to radio, cinema, TV and the 'normal' web (aka surface web, as opposed to deep or dark - definitions here).
The dark net exists; it's not going to go away anytime soon. If it exists, you have to understand it. And to understand the dark net, Jamie Bartlett's book is a bloody good place to start. Although I think "Sex and drugs and rotten trolls," would have been a better title...