29 Jun 2017

Review: Deep Web

I wanted to watch this movie to learn more about the foundation and operations of The Silk Road, the most famous "dark web" market where people used encrypted (PGP), traceless (Tor) communications to make deals, mostly exchanging bitcoin for drugs.

What I got was a rather ugly update on the drug wars, government misbehavior/corruption, and the future of marketplaces.

Drug wars: The Silk Road attracted attention for its open market for drugs and buyer ratings for vendors (just like Amazon). Users were happy to get better, cheaper gear with less risk.* Vendors could invest in building their reputation by competing to offer better service. Politicians and (some) law enforcement saw the site as a challenge to their authority. Companies selling legal highs also disliked SR because it offered cheaper (and perhaps safer) products.

Opiates (everything from Oxycontin to heroin) are now responsible for the greatest "premature" death toll of any activity in the US -- higher than deaths from guns and car accidents, combined.

Politicians and law enforcement decided to shut down the Silk Road (Big Pharma wouldn't mind), and the bulk of the film focusses on the chase, capture and trial of the "kingpin" behind SR (Ross Ulbricht, pictured) by any means, fair or foul.

Government corruption: I'll cut to the main point, which is that the government violated Ulbricht's Fourth Amendment Right against unlawful search and seizure when they "copied Silk Road servers" and seized Ulbricht's laptop without getting the correct warrants or following transparent procedures. Why does this matter? Because Ulbricht was accused of contracting for the murder of 5-6 individuals on top of money laundering, computer hacking, and conspiracy to traffic narcotics. Those attempted murder charges are what caught the attention of the press and anger of the trial judge, but the charges were dropped in the real trial. Why? Perhaps because no dead bodies were ever connected to Ulbricht?  Perhaps because law enforcement planted evidence on Ulbricht's computer? That latter action is very easy for me to believe after following the Drug War for several decades: Cops are willing to break, bend or undermine the law when it comes to getting "bad" guys or their assets.

Skeptical? Then think about this: Two government agents involved in catching Ulbricht were tried, convicted and jailed for stealing bitcoins from him in the course of the operation. I don't thins that was all they did to "give justice a hand up."

(Oh, and don't forget that poor black men suffer much more than affluent white men (like Ulbricht) from the War, so this story will be old news in communities that have been abused since the 1980s.)

The future of darknet markets: They're here to stay, for as long as people want drugs and drugs are illegal.** (Related: A very interesting post on how cryptocurrency markets work -- or fail!)

Bottom Line: Governments cannot shut down markets with willing buyers and sellers. (The best they can do is regulate them.) Ross Ulbricht was a rebel against -- and victim of -- the US Government's flat earth attitudes. I give this film FIVE STARS for bringing attention to the human side if those trying to innovate market institutions.

* Most of the danger from "drugs" comes from their illicit status, e.g., "medical marijuana laws lead to a decrease in violent crime in states that border Mexico. This is consistent with the theory that marijuana decriminalization reduces violent crime in markets traditionally controlled by Mexican drug trafficking organisations."

** I just took about 10 minutes to download Tor, find AlphaBay (a big Darknet site), create a profile (I already had GPG -- a version of PGP -- installed), and find this advert (out of 300k+):

FYI, this $104 purchase supplies the equivalent of 10,000 10mcg doses (I'm not quite sure, actually) or enough to kill about 50 people (100mg of heroin would not kill one). This drug is so cheap that it's being distributed everywhere to make "fake" heroin, but it is so strong that people are dying daily. The darknet is delivering what people want, but the lack of legal regulation (and safety) is resulting in violence (fights among street dealers) and death. Legalize it!
Addendum (1 Aug): Police have shut down alphabay and another darknet website. This observer notes that those actions will do nothing to stop demand and are likely to lead people to take more chances to get drugs from street dealers or less reputable sites. Fail.

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