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In February 2015 Ross Ulbricht was convicted of money laundering, computer hacking and conspiracy to traffic narcotics for his role (either with or as Dread Pirate Roberts) in creating and administrating the darknet market Silk Road. For this, U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest sentenced Ulbricht to life in prison without possibility for parole. Why was Ulbricht treated more severely than most murderers and child molesters (not to mention wall street and state criminals who do far more societal harm than all others combined)? The only logical explanation is that they needed to make an example out of him not just for his actions but for what he represented. The draconian sentence sends a message that the government is doubling down on its destructive and wasteful war on drugs and is clearly threatened by agorists (ie. those advocating for a society of voluntary exchanges and counter-economics without violence or authority) who utilize the darknet to make their ideas manifest. To understand the scope of the threat this poses to governments one must understand what the darknet is.
The darknet is an anonymous overlay network accessed through special software, configurations and/or protocols. It was created in the 1970s to designate anonymous networks isolated from ARPANET (an early form of the internet) which, for security purposes, had addresses hidden from network lists and were unresponsive to pings or other inquiries. The World Wide Web content that exists on darknets (known as the dark web) can only be accessed through anonymous browsers such as the Freenet or TOR Browser Bundle. The darknet and dark web are part of the deep web, the content of the World Wide Web not discoverable by means of standard search engines.
Interest in and use of the darknet has grown dramatically since TOR was released to the public in 2003. Much like when the internet was new, the darknet is often slow, though it has more to do with the complex random rerouting necessary for anonymity than the hardware or infrastructure. And like the early internet, the darknet is widely viewed as the new “wild west”. The darknet does attract its share of fringe subcultures including cryptoanarchists, transhumanists, digital pirates, sexual fetishists, drug users and dealers of different types, etc., but the groups that have arguably been the most empowered by the technology are political dissidents such as whistleblowers and activists.
As governments and corporations gain increasing power over the physical realm through laws, economics, violence and surveillance, one of the few remaining options for anyone wanting to bring about systemic change without fear of retribution, is the darknet. The government would of course never openly admit their fear of such a threat, though it’s apparent that law enforcement and intelligence agencies (who behave as if they’re entitled to the right to monitor all activity) are threatened enough even by less overtly political darknet sites such as Silk Road. They may claim concern over drug gang violence and addiction justifies the crackdown, but if that were actually the case they would have ended the war on (some) drugs years ago when more than enough data was available proving harm reduction to be a more humane and effective strategy.
Of course violent and cruel behavior can be found on the darknet, just as it exists offline. One could argue such cases should be investigated in ways that don’t jeopardize the anonymity of all users. What about the safety of victims attempting to evade dangerous individuals and groups? Whistleblowers need anonymity as well if releasing information on crimes committed by people in power.
As law enforcement struggles to defeat darknet anonymity with new tools such as Memex (a data-trawling program), programmers innovate to make darknet sites more decentralized, private, secure, and user friendly. Improved user interface will draw more users to the darknet, especially as awareness of internet privacy and security issues increase. Government efforts to police and regulate the darknet will also increase further as aspects of the darknet become both more mainstream and fringe, the darknet marketplace expands exponentially and improved cryptocurrencies are developed to meet demand.
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