The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld by Jamie Bartlett (Brooklyn: Melville House Publishing, 2015), 320 pages.
Do you really want someone to die? If you could help bring about someone’s demise by anonymously and securely placing a bet on when that particular someone might take a dirtnap, would you? That’s the premise of the Assassination Market, an online betting site not accessible by a Google or Bing search or your Firefox or Safari browser. The instructions are simple:
- Add a name to the list
- Add money to the pot in the person’s name
- Predict when that person will die
- Correct predictions get the pot.
When researcher Jamie Bartlett set out to write a book about the dark alcoves of the Internet, he believed he would write an exposé of all the hideous things he discovered and demand that the proper authorities protect people from the predators, as well as themselves. What he ended up doing was something altogether different. Ignore the ominous title: The Dark Net is an incredible journey into the lives of real people and how they use the Internet as a means to find community, to follow their ideals, and, yes, get their kicks and do very bad things too.
“The dark net, for me, describes an idea more than a particular place,” Bartlett, the director of the Center for the Analysis of Social Media at the London-based think tank Demos, explains. “Internet underworlds set apart yet connected to the internet we inhabit, worlds of freedom and anonymity, where users say and do what they like, often uncensored, unregulated, and outside of society’s norms.”
The Internet, Bartlett reminds us, was the brainchild of researchers at the Advanced Research Projects Agency — now known as DARPA, the Pentagon’s incubator for its imperial toys. The point of the project was to create a network of linked computers, which would become Arpanet, so that scientists could easily exchange information. From its very beginning in the late 1960s, the Net was to be “open, decentralized, accessible, and censorship-free.” Freedom was baked into its very design, even if it has been largely reverse-engineered for corporate and state surveillance ever since.
Access to the Internet swelled within a few decades as primitive chat rooms and forums, known as Bulletin Board Systems and Usenet, were created, but it was the rise of the World Wide Web and email in the 1990s that changed the way people accessed and exchanged information. Immediately the entrepreneurs and misfits and weirdos grasped the potential of the Web, spawning infinite ways for like-minded people — from the extreme to the boring — to connect and make a living. There subcultures thrived, and people played freely — oftentimes viciously — in a world without authority or easily enforceable rules. While that Net still exists in an age of Google, Facebook, and Twitter, its new home is hidden in the Dark Web, an obscure portion of the Net where people don’t want to be identified and jealously guard their privacy.
Offline he was a nobody
A strong current running through Bartlett’s narrative is how everyday people find empowerment online, even if their offline lives and identities are a mess. A case in point is Paul, a friendly white-power advocate in England who has a committed following online. Bartlett sums up Paul’s fractured existence this way:
He lives in a one-dimensional world of friends and enemies, right and wrong — and one where he has been spending increasing amounts of time. The digital Paul is a dynamic, aggressive, and prominent advocate of the White Pride movement. The real Paul is an unemployed thirty-something who lives alone in a small house.
While governments continue to stoke the fear of lone wolves radicalized online who commit atrocities against flesh-and-blood people, it’s critical to remember that the Pauls out there vastly outnumber real threats, like Anders Behring Breivik, the tech-savvy white nationalist who single-handedly murdered 77 people in Norway in July 2011. Violent, ideologically motivated individuals are a rare and rather impotent terrorist threat.
While that fact may push people to believe the Internet should be another overregulated space to tackle racial epithets or pornography or fill-in-the-blank pathology, Paul’s story should give pause. Left-wingers aggressively pushed back against Paul’s online activities and tried to connect his online identity to his real identity. Bartlett ends Paul’s story by noting he has taken a break from his online activities, telling Bartlett, “I was becoming too hate-filled, too paranoid, it was seeping into my blood, my bones.” As this experience demonstrates, there are other ways to fight back against threats online than NSA-style dragnet surveillance.
On the bright side, the Internet and the World Wide Web have created the possibility of a true marketplace of ideas where the sacred and the profane battle for supremacy, as they’re meant to. But there’s another silver lining to such extreme free expression: It provides a relatively safe space for people to express their beliefs and feelings without the consequences, sometimes violent, associated with the flesh-and-blood world. And if that doesn’t convince you of its merit, maybe Bartlett’s optimistic appraisal will: “Whatever their beliefs, the internet and social media have made politics accessible and appealing to countless people, and that has to be a good thing.”
It’s always been the dream of libertarians, whether of the Left or Right, to create free spaces outside of state surveillance, control, and violence. The Internet has enabled such experiments, which Bartlett documents vividly through a free-market anarchist Bitcoin programmer and the flourishing online drug markets of Silk Road.
In the Calafou cooperative outside of Barcelona, Bartlett joins computer coder and cypherpunk Amir Taaki, who is working on a Bitcoin-related project called “Dark Wallet.” The gist of the project is easy to understand, even if the technology powering it is anything but. Dark Wallet will allow its users to buy whatever they want with the crypto-currency on the black market without being traced, taxed, or thrown in the slammer. “The government is just one big bunch of gangsters!” exclaims Taaki during a talk in London, vulgarly summarizing his philosophy. He tells Bartlett that he hopes people will use Dark Wallet to buy drugs without fear of getting pinched. He means it.
While maybe it is easy to dismiss Taaki as some crazed loon who craves chaos, you shouldn’t. He is an idealist with a cause: “I am for the human spirit, and against power,” he says. Bartlett believes him, writing, “And it’s true that Amir is deeply committed to sharing rather than profiting from the technology he produces. This is difficult not to admire.” For Taaki, Bitcoin is just the beginning. He wants to build a social-media platform, think Facebook, that’s free of corporate control, where censorship is nonexistent and the individual can be whoever he wants to be.
But Bartlett isn’t content with merely hearing about anonymous transactions in the digital underground from Taaki. He wants to experience them, so he does what any self-respecting writer would do: he buys drugs on the Silk Road. The Silk Road is one of the largest unregulated online market places. One user describes it as “kind of like an anonymous Amazon.com.”
This isn’t all that avant-garde. A 2014 survey of approximately 80,000 drug users from 43 countries found that about 14 percent of respondents bought their fix on the Net. As Bartlett notes, one of the first things sold using Arpanet was a small amount of marijuana between students at Stanford and MIT. Today, illegal-drug sellers have flocked to Tor’s encrypted Hidden Services to sell their goods.
Let’s be clear. Silk Road isn’t just about satisfying natural human urges or making money, it’s a movement, observes Bartlett. “We are NOT beasts of burden to be taxed and controlled and regulated,” wrote the Dread Pirate Roberts, the site’s anonymous administrator named after the character in the novel The Princess Bride. “The future can be a time where the human spirit flourishes, unbridled, wild and free!” What the people behind Silk Road wanted to create was a true self-regulating free market outside of state interference where anonymous buyers and sellers securely exchanged what they desired without shame or significant fear of punishment. They succeeded, according to Bartlett, for a while. In 2013, the FBI arrested 29-year-old Ross Ulbricht on various felony charges, accusing him of being the Dread Pirate Roberts. A stash of Bitcoins worth approximately $150 million was seized from his computer. In February, he was convicted and controversially sentenced to life in prison.
But as in the novel, the Dread Pirate Roberts was just a symbol. While the Silk Road could be knocked offline, it couldn’t be shut down for good. When Silk Road 2.0 launched just a month after takedown, a new Dread Pirate Roberts had this message for its netizens, “Silk Road has risen from the ashes and is now ready and waiting for you all to return home. Welcome back to freedom.”
And whereas it may well be impossible to find a true free market outside of state protection offline historically, Bartlett finds them throughout the Dark Net. Sellers truly compete for customers. Customers rate their sellers, creating reputations that thrive off of good customer service. Scammers are outed fast in what he describes as “an impressive amount of self-policing here, a genuine drive to identify and remove scammers.” Payment methods are increasingly becoming more decentralized and secure. It’s important to remember that the markets Bartlett’s describing here are drug markets, which in the fleshy world are corrupt and violent.
The ideal is totally free markets. In the meantime, people might have to settle for the Dark Web.
A refreshing aspect to Bartlett’s book is that it’s not excessively focused on the United States. Because Bartlett is British, most of his characters are European. It’s a good reminder that the Internet, though technically a U.S. government invention, is used by billions of people for a never-ending variety of reasons, most mundane, some liberating, some destructive. For every person using the web and encryption to peddle child porn — the most disturbing chapter in the book — there are dissidents using encryption, such as Tor, to protect their communications from state interception and write and collaborate on code to maintain and expand freedom on the net.
To destroy encryption for the pedophiles and terrorists is to destroy encryption for everyone else — a self-destructive trade-off that will leave everyone worse off. Remember this the next time you hear the FBI or the NSA fearmongering over strong encryption and their desperate need for backdoor access to our communications to save civilization from the digital hordes.
Bartlett came to understand that intimately. “The same anonymity that allows the Assassination Market to operate also keeps whistleblowers, human-rights campaigners, and activists alive,” he writes. “For every destructive subculture I examined there are just as many that are positive, helpful, and constructive.” In other words, it’s just like our world — because it is our world.
Governments have poisoned the Surface Web for us all — a sphere where everything we do is subject to government surveillance. The Dark Web offers a certain amount of freedom that we can only hope will never be completely destroyed. Jamie Bartlett, whether intentional or not, has done a service with his wise, restrained, and humane book on where people can go for a little liberation. Just remember that when you’re there, you’re responsible for yourself and your security. That’s freedom’s opportunity cost. Don’t do anything too stupid.
This article was originally published in the January 2016 edition of Future of Freedom.