Assassination Markets And The Ethics Of Swarms

The recent Forbes article on the Assassination Market marks only the most recent addition to a growing list of online cryptographic and counter-economic projects, but for those familiar with Tim May’s “Crypto-Anarchist Manifesto” or Jim Bell’s “Assassination Politics,” it is the final, cathartic confrontation with a world we all saw coming.

As the article details in an interview with pseudonymous founder Kuwabatake Sanjuro, the Assassination Market is a platform for crowdfunding bounties on the heads of various politicians and government officials, to be collected by anyone who can eliminate them and offer proof. On its face, the Assassination Market is the ultimate test of anonymising software, cloaking the most shameless and confrontational scheme imaginable. To most people it must seem like a clear incitement to terrorism, and by the creator’s account terrorizing politicians into extinction is his intention. And there’s a bit of libertarian macho flash to it; if private defense agencies are a hard sell to the public, get a load of this!

I won’t comment on the ethics or prudence of the site’s intended goal, but rather on its potential unintended consequences. The Assassination Market is qualitatively different from other crypto-anarchist projects to date. Tor, Bitcoin, Silk Road and Defense Distributed aim to empower individuals in ways that don’t necessarily entail such direct harm to third parties, without first gaining third party permission. These are, to paraphrase Sanjuro, a blow to the fetish of democracy. I think this is a good thing.

Wikileaks, and the expansion of bottom up surveillance by leakers, cell phone cameras, hacktivists and the like are a more complicated matter. Surveillance is commonly portrayed as  a totalitarian encroachment, but it’s really more of a people’s game. Rulers only have so many eyes and so many things to watch, while we have lots of eyes laid on comparatively fewer (and, for the familiar Hayekian reasons, slower and less responsive) institution. The advantages stack massively in favor of the little guy against the dinosaurs.

However, egalitarian surveillance and social networking enables mobs to swarm against the unpopular for illegitimate reasons, fostering a climate of chaotic and perpetual horizontal oppression by bullies for … I suppose for lulz. It’s a big relief to see Anonymous displaying ethics in its choice of targets, and recently going after rapists when other people are using the same social media platforms to threaten survivors. Ditto for the many stories of crowds rising to support abused people they don’t even know, after hearing about bullying through Facebook or Twitter. The precedent so far has been acceptably good and I’m less worried about the development of a society without privacy than I otherwise would be.

I’m not so certain regarding the crowdfunding of death, but I guess we’ll see. It could have been said about the users of Silk Road or Defcad, but I think the potential for anonymous murder might attract a dangerous kind of person. Not killers in the mold of Obama, but the kind of people who think Ben Bernanke is the most obvious proxy for Sauron and think it necessary to include his transparently Jewish middle name on the hit listing. In other words, abusive trolls from the dark recesses of the Internet, whose bark normally outstrips their bite but who in swarms, through proxy soldiers, could make their abuse flesh.

The purpose of the Assassination Market is the crowdfunded death of unpopular people. Whatever ethical constraints Sanjuro might place on his own site, there is a market for others who won’t. Today the targets are politicians and bureaucrats; tomorrow economic elites; but the model can be applied to anyone who stands out and gains public disapproval, for whatever reason. Obviously, this can lead to undesirable outcomes as far as individuality is concerned. What if the result of institutionalized assassination markets is a spontaneous order of repression more efficient than that of the current government? More Americans still want Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning imprisoned than otherwise. Salman Rushdie might not have outlived Khomeini. If you think the current crop of reddit mobs and cyber-sociopaths are bad, just wait until people put their money where their mouths are against rape survivors who speak out.

It’s unclear what will happen if this model sees broadened application. The cypherpunks of the 90s were too excited at getting here to give full consideration to where we might go from here. It will fall to us to shape the discourse, and for a new generation of technologically and politically aware to shape the trends. I’m a futurist at heart, and I’d like to think that there’s a way to force some accountability into the process of swarms, so that they become expressions of solidarity and not predation. If we can do that, then we may indeed have a bright future ahead of us.

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