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The Demise of the Oldest Dark-Net Marketplace

George Smith, BA Social Anthropology

Ask yourself, what would you do if Amazon or eBay shut down? Gone, disappeared. How about that website which sends you those organic status-enhancing vegetables in the post? I’d imagine the answer for most of us would be simple, go to the next best thing. If eBay shuts down, use Amazon.

“Police are engaged in a bitter showdown with these hacker-turned-entrepreneurs, because they are beating the system at its own game.”

 For many of us students of the dot com era, with a clicker-happy sense of entitlement and a (un)healthy appetite for illicit narcotics; the recent closure of Dream Market – the online “dark-net” Amazon-style marketplace for all things illegal – won’t be losing us any precious sleep. 

 Last month, Dream Market’s admins posted a no-frills message on the main site indicating that after six long years of business it would be closing its shutters for the last time. From the outside this may look like a victory to law enforcement, another nail in the coffin of the open-source libertarian revolution. However, from the inside it appears that the site, with millions of regular users and 57,000 listings for drugs alone, will be the first dark net marketplace to end business on its own terms. This is far from a victory for law enforcement. The site’s admins, assumingly worth tens of millions by now, along with the hundreds of successful vendors and thousands happy customers will all get to walk away scot free. In fact, it goes to show that the cat and mouse game simply isn’t working anymore (not to say it ever was). 

 What next? You might wonder. Well, if the failed sixty year “War on Drugs” has taught us anything, it’s that if you cut supply, demand goes absolutely nowhere. As we’ve learnt in recent years, when the government bans a new research chemical, the laboratories in China don’t call it a day – they simply engineer a new chemical with a slightly different structure to bypass the new law. In a similar way, fleeting customers from Dream Market, the digital refugees if you will, shall simply go to Dream 2.0 or to any of the hundreds (literally hundreds) of adequate marketplaces hovering around in the deep dark web as we speak. 

 But who is to blame? You might ask. Well, in the words of Bill Clinton, “it’s the economy, stupid!”. Yes, that’s right. Our economy is ripe territory for new emergent markets which sophisticatedly exploit the demand for a commodity. Capitalism is an amazingly innovative and adaptable force, as any good Marxist will begrudgingly admit. Which is exactly why police are engaged in a bitter showdown with these hacker-turned-entrepreneurs, because they are beating the system at its own game. This, of course, is cloaked in a narrative of public health, the “drugs are bad” trope. Drugs are killing you kids faster than you can say laissez-faire, apparently.

 But if history is anything to go by, governments do not give a rat’s ass about your health. If they did, perhaps they wouldn’t allow an opiate crisis to flourish at the expense of maintaining Bayer and Pfizer’s profit flow. Or perhaps they wouldn’t deny millions of terminally ill patients the legal access to cannabis, a known treatment of epic potential, in order to maintain a propaganda campaign against Mexicans which went too far. Or perhaps they might have thought twice about any of the various oil drilling, pipeline building, or fracking practices which are having a detrimental effect on our natural world and water supply. 

 No, governments don’t care about people’s heath. What they do care about is new unchartered economic territory which could threaten their monopoly on consumerism. If there is one good thing about capitalism, it is that, in its purest form, consumers can become activists and hold big business to account. The consumer is David and the corporation is Goliath; as big as the giant seems the consumer has the holy laws of the free market on their side. Unfortunately, in our neoliberal era we’ve strayed far from this ideal. True economic freedom lies in the hands of the few and only entrepreneurs who are willing to collaborate with the system get in, which is why, when entrepreneurs like Ross Ulbricht (a twenty-something Uni of Texas graduate and former book vendor) are unmasked as the moderators of dark-net marketplaces, they are served with draconian prison sentences, unprecedented in our times. In Ulbricht’s case, that meant two life sentences plus forty years without the possibility of parole, for all non-violent charges. 

 Nonetheless, like a beautiful and dangerous flower, the underground market is resilient and adapts to its environment. So, if you want to pay a visit to a world in which American-Dream capitalism is flourishing, go to a dark-net marketplace. You don’t have to buy or sell anything, you can wander around as a tourist. Think of it as a holiday. A holiday to reminisce of a time and a place which never really existed. 

If you would like to sign Ross Ulbricht’s petition, please click here:

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