Darknet Markets as Political Activism

Ross Ulbricht’s life has become a nightmare. In 2013 he was given a life sentence with no chance of parole; he was charged with being the suspected founder and operator of the online drug market Silk Road. The operator of this site was previously only known as Dread Pirate Roberts- a name one might recall from the book and film The Princess Bride. This name was used not by one man, but a series of men all using the pseudonym to pass along identity and reputation. Ross’s sentencing was not just a criminal case. There is good reason to see it as a form of political warfare. Those in power desired to make an example of him. They wished to threaten anyone who might try to recreate his alleged activities. Ironically his conviction brought online darknet marketplaces into the mainstream. His case forces us to ask questions about the implications of these systems and what they mean for the future of the “War on Drugs.”

The War On Drugs Is A War On People

It’s no secret that the criminalization of drugs is deeply rooted in racism. One only needs to look at the direct quotes of those involved. Take, for example, this quote by Harry J. Anslinger, the 1930 director of the newly formed Federal Bureau of narcotics:

“Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.”

It would be a deep error to not remember these beliefs when talking about drug criminalization.

State oppression of the drug market is more than a thinly veiled attempt at racist political violence. This monstrosity has leaked into every aspect of American society; it has become a catalyst for further police militarization and exasperated criminalization of basic human nature. It has become a war against our intuition for seeking fun and enlightenment. It has become a war on commerce and entrepreneurship by throwing those in jail who have proven their ability to hustle and make a sale. It is a war on property and privacy as the state reaches its tentacle arms into our homes, controlling what we do behind closed doors and on our computers. Perhaps most importantly it has become a war on people. Drug users, sellers, and producers are now part of a criminal class; at risk of arrest for simply existing. 

We are victims of a political war, our rights stripped in the name of racism, prison profits, and the moralistic “do-gooders” who enable it. 

Freedom Through Innovation

We need not be victims for long. Many tactics for creating freedom are possible: education, protests, direct action, and such. There is however, a tactic often overlooked- The tactic of entrepreneurial innovation. This is the great beauty of what Dread Pirate Roberts was trying to create with Silk Road. This is why Ross received the sentence of a political enemy.

Silk Road and it’s descendent darknet sites are one of the greatest tools in the fight for drug freedom. Thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of people were and are able to access the products that they want; at a competitive price. The systems built into these sites help ensure quality of products, and safety in the transactions.

At the bare minimum, these sites give us an example for how to build a better and safer marketplace for products that are currently illicit, however there is a more grand insight to be found in these projects: perhaps they can serve as a model for subverting the state and building freedom here and now. Even if the goods and services that are purchased are illegal, the fact is consumers can now acquire them with minimal risk of legal punishment. This is even true in the case of Silk Road. People like Ross were at risk, but your average customer saw no legal outcomes. We can take a look at the research on this collected by Gwern Branwen. At the time of writing there are only about 158 known arrests related to the original Silk Road market. A significantly small portion of those were actually US based buyers. Many of the cases could have been easily prevented with simple security measures.

If a law has virtually no impact, the law can’t even meaningfully exist. What’s the point of a law that can’t be enforced? What are ways we can make other unjust laws unenforceable? These are the questions the darknet markets force us to ponder.

Powerful Built-In Incentives

This model for political activism has some beautiful built-in incentives. The better you are building a system that can’t be shut down, the more possibility for profit you have. Competition between sites and of the entrepreneurs on them leads to better quality service. We don’t have to rely on the good will and philosophical motivation of actors. We can appeal purely to one’s self interest and incentivize them to do what benefits us all.

Additionally by making it easier and safer to access these products, we find that cultural perception of them is likely to change. Think of the countless cases of people you knew who changed their perception of homosexuality after someone close to them came out. Similarly we can see this effect with drugs. If the successful co worker you admire comes out as a healthy casual user or seller of substances it’s likely to change your perception on these substances. Without a doubt, drugs have their risks of abuse. Fortunately though, these markets make products safer. Customers have better access to information and can dig through mountains of reviews before making a purchase. This lowers the risk of things like overdoses or other problems that come from the older and dirtier black markets.

You Are Dread Pirate Roberts

But how can the average person contribute to this battle? Need we become coders and criminal masterminds? No. Simple participation is all that’s needed. Buy, sell, use. Continue having fun and expanding your mind. Maybe this is why this tactic is so overlooked. It seems like a call to do literally nothing but simply living. In a world that criminalises your happiness, simply living as free and joyful as possible is a form of revolution. Pursuing your interest and passion is activism.

It is through our pursuit of happiness that we can find innovations that bring us power while weakening those who intend us harm. In this way we can all be Dread Pirate Roberts. We can all carry on his legacy of freedom.

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