Illicit and Inevitable

Ever since our own infamous UTD alum Ross Ulbricht created and operated the world’s first online black market, named Silk Road, in February 2011, it and sites like it have flourished into a burgeoning anonymous marketplace wherein shoppers have access to contraband ranging from high explosives to bulk shipments of designer drugs, all obtainable with virtually no fear of detection. This is in spite of the best efforts of law enforcement, who take years to take down marketplaces and achieve little but provide room in the market for new sites to emerge. For most of the public, markets like these are seen as taboo places, dens of evil that only the most morally abhorrent would seek to enter.  There’s no question that these organizations have dark aspects, yet to say that they are devoid of positives is objectively false. Rather, these markets operate in a sort of moral gray area, and their benefits to society are discussed far less often than their costs. Ulbricht is perceived by many as a nihilistic hedonist, unconcerned with the ramifications of his creation, but the truth is quite the opposite. Though financial gain motivated Ulbricht, he believed, and still does, that marketplaces like Silk Road represent a bastion of freedom and classical libertarianism against the will of an oppressive majority. These sites provide a very real threat to society’s ability to prevent citizens from possessing materials which it deems illegal, which is why they elicit such an aggressive response from law enforcement.

What makes these markets so powerful is in part their ease of access; anyone with the inclination could perform a cursory google search and discover that accessing sites like AlphaBay Market would be frightfully easy. All a user would have to do is install free Tor browser software, subscribe to a VPN or use one of the many free ones, navigate to a black market, install some free software, and within half an hour could find themselves on any number of illicit websites anonymously purchasing contraband with no fear of retribution. This means the average citizen is fully capable of circumventing the law. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in pirated media. Virtually every movie, videogame, and book is available for illegal download through torrent services. We’ve all seen the warnings before films regarding theft. The punishments are ludicrously steep, including two years in jail and fines up to $200,000, but this ridiculously high punishment belies the reality that the government is all but powerless to stop pirating or punish those who download. What we don’t see is anyone actually being prosecuted for this crime; it’s too widespread, too hard to find evidence for, and the wronged party is often too hard to discern. So the government creates a comically large punishment in the hopes that it will deter would-be offenders from a crime that is virtually impossible to be caught committing. Marketplaces like Silk Road 3.0 and AlphaBay offer the same essential service as the torrent services that many more people use, but instead of free movies, they deal nearly exclusively in illegal substances, firearms, explosives, data theft, and stolen merchandise. Because of the nature of these markets, they are devoid of morality and laws. If someone is buying, someone is selling. The only rules of these sites deal with transaction. In this way, places like AlphaBay are the realization of a quintessential market utopia.

What perhaps is less often thought of when considering an individual’s reasons for using online black markets is safety. Getting access to illegal narcotics, for example, is not a difficult task, especially in urban centers, and certainly doesn’t require knowledge of tor browsers and  VPN’s. People don’t use online black marketplaces because they are the only means or even the cheapest; rather, they’re far more likely to be more expensive.  People use these services because they are safe. Vendors have reviews from former customers and track records of good practices. There’s no fear of police stings or gang violence. Compared to the shady nature of face-to-face dealers, these sites provide a vastly safer option. Considering that people are going to get their hands on these substances regardless of whether or not they are available online, is it so bad that sites like this exist to provide a safer means? Obviously we cannot explicitly condone these sites, as doing so would violate the basis of our society. However, perhaps an occasional blind eye could be implemented, such that these sites are never legitimate, never accepted, but never attacked either. That being said, the decision is rather inconsequential.

Currently, dozens of major black market sites exist, and the government is unable to take them down at rates even close to matching their growth. The time and effort necessary to track these sites down is costly and inefficient, and even when government agents succeed in discovering the administrator, many cases are thrown out due to lack of evidence. Only a few years ago, Peter Sunde, one of the cofounders of ThePirateBay, a notorious torrenting site, was arrested in a case that had been building up since 2005, and, despite all of that effort, ThePirateBay is still up today. Gone are the days when agents could steal a laptop and gain access to the entirety of a marketplace as was done in the apprehension of Ross Ulbricht. The industry has since adapted and evolved in order to overcome these obstacles, and the government is woefully inept at adapting themselves. As such, it should be assumed that these markets will not go away as long as there is demand for them.

So long as there are things the government forbids, there will continue to be demand. That was the central concept of Ulbricht’s Silk Road. People were buying illegal firearms long before Ulbricht, the drug trade had been booming since long before the internet, and prostitution has existed since before recorded history.. There will always be a demand for debaucheries and the illicit; all these sites do is facilitate markets that already exist. Even if the government succeeded in taking down all of these black market sites, it wouldn’t stop people from seeking them out. These sites accept that there will be people willing to engage in illegal trade, and that it’s possible to provide a safe, and profitable, environment for these exchanges to take place. However, whether it’s good for society or not is up for debate. These sites are essentially lawless, with a culture that doesn’t bat an eye at hitman requests or high explosives. But this apathy is necessary in order for the system to work. For the Silk Road and its ilk to establish a no-judgement environment, they cannot have any limits. There can be no line they won’t cross, or business they won’t engage in. This makes them all the more enticing, but all the more threatening.