Just two months after the FBI pulled the plug on Ross Ulbricht’s Silk Road in October 2013, an anonymous administrator of a “Silk Road 2.0” took to Twitter under the name Dread Pirate Roberts (Ulbricht’s original handle) to tweet that his site was backed up on hundreds of servers in 17 countries around the world. “Whack-a-mole will not work,” he wrote.
Still, federal law enforcement keeps hammering the mallet at an elusive target. “Those looking to follow in the footsteps of alleged cyber criminals should understand that we will return as many times as necessary to shut down noxious online criminal bazaars,” U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara said in a statement, after the FBI arrested 26-year-old programmer Blake Benthall (DPR 2.0) for running the new Silk Road in November. “We don’t get tired.”
Neither do cyber-criminals: within hours, there was another DPR touting another illegal bazaar, Silk Road Reloaded. “There is no judgment, censorship, or repercussion here,” the new site declared. “We are truly free.”
Ulbricht, however, is not. Last week, a federal jury in Manhattan convicted him of being Silk Road’s mastermind, with seven counts of drug and conspiracy charges that could send him to prison for life (sentencing is in May, his lawyer plans to appeal). Unsurprisingly, this latest conviction has done little to dissuade those who run dark-net bazaars like Evolution, Agora, or Nucleus. The game of Whack-a-Mole goes on, which begs the question: can the Moles ever be whacked?
For the U.S. government, the Deep Web is a problem of its own making. It was developed three decades ago by the U.S. Naval Research Lab as a sort of online bunker – a secure network for government communication. It went wide in 2003 with the release of The Onion Router (TOR), free software that, when used with a Web-browser, opened access to this online underground. The Deep Web grew to be 500 times bigger than the surface web that the average person sees. Some of the contents are innocuous—train schedules, medical databases, other resources that can’t be easily indexed by search engines.
But the Deep Web, not surprisingly, also became a haven for illegal content. While sex and drugs have ben available online almost as long as there’s been an Internet, the introduction of cryptographic currency Bitcoin in 2009 helped turn the Deep Web intp a petri dish for a new generation of criminals pawning dope, guns, and child porn. There were other Deep Web bazaars before Silk Road launched in 2010, but Ulbricht created a market that succeeded for many of the same reasons any startup succeeds: the site was well-designed, fostered a robust social network, and built around a new, hot tech trend—Bitcoin.
To understand the likelihood of the Feds shutting down black markets online, consider efforts to curb the digital underground in the recent past. The first battle began on June 1, 1999, after Shawn Fanning, an undergrad at Northeastern University, released Napster, the first popular file-sharing service online. At the turn of the century, Napster became the story that epitomized the sort of Rise of the Moles – free services empowered by new technologies that circumvented, and threatened to destroy, the old distribution systems. Napster, however, had an Achilles heel: its centralized servers, shutdown in July 2001 after the Recording Industry Association of America lobbied for a permanent injunction.
But a more resilient alternative was already making waves. The year before, 21-year-old Justin Frankel and his friend Tom Pepper released Gnutella, a file-sharing program running on the decentralized personal computers of its users—no company to sue, no servers to shut down. Gnutella became a movement. This was much more important than piracy. This was peer-to-peer technology, a democratized means of communication that could be used for all kinds of files, not just illegal ones. It was much like the idea of the original Internet, a network for peers of scientists and engineers.
Dozens of nodes grew to hundreds, thousands, millions, and a host of new peer-to-peer sites—such as LimeWire, BearShare, and Kazaa—emerged to help surfers find their goods. The lawsuits from the RIAA kept coming; while some peer-to-peer sites went down, the system at large was becoming more resilient. Next came BitTorrent, a protocol that allowed for even larger files to be shared between people online. Since then, battles have ensued over file-sharing hubs such as MegaUpload and PirateBay, but no matter which services rise and fall, the willful can still find a way to share whatever they desire with just a few clicks online.
The market for illegal content or goods will continue to fuel innovation online. This is why, even in the few years since Ulbricht launched Silk Road, the denizens of the digital underground continue to pivot and adapt. New technologies have evolved to meet their needs for privacy and security. Communication has moved from the more open Internet Relay Chat to encrypted Off-the-Record chats, used in protocols such as the Instant Messaging client, Jabber. Instead of sending emails or texts, messages are left using so-called “burn note” sites, which allow for messages to be read once on a password-protected website, and then erased.
The Feds have a responsibility to pursue and prosecute criminals online to the best of their abilities. But now, in the wake of Ulbricht’s downfall, the underworld of Deep Web bazaars – including the people who run and use them – will only learn from Ulbricht’s slip-ups and become all the more robust.