The Fight Against Darknet Markets Will Lead us Nowhere
The past week was a sad one for online freedom. Liberty’s last sanctuary has been threatened once again by the usual, ignorant and relentless governmental bodies in Europe and the US. Their latest attempt to stop the inevitable concerned the seize of two major darknet markets: Hansa and AlphaBay. This operation costed thousands of euros and resulted in numerous disappointed customers, but more importantly it costed Alexandre Cazes his life, as the alleged administrator of AlphaBay committed suicide on July 12th.
At the beginning of July, users were surprised when AlphaBay, the largest “criminal” marketplace on the Dark Web, was shut down, causing a mass migration to Hansa, the once third largest provider. But what users didn’t know was that for the past month Hansa was being controlled by Dutch Police. They set what is known as a darknet trap, catching and storing user’s’ information without their knowledge. 10,000 foreign addresses of Hansa market buyers were passed on to Europol.
Hansa was seized by a joint operation led by the FBI, the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the Dutch National Police, and backed by Europol. Referring to the operation, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions said at a Washington news conference that “the darknet is not a place to hide…. You are not safe, you cannot hide. We will find you, dismantle your organization and network, and we will prosecute you”.
So far, nothing has been disclosed about the administrators, vendors, or customers from either Hansa or AlphaBay. The only measure the DEA and FBI took was to ask for the extradition of Alexandre Cazes, after identifying him in an operation they called Bayonet. Cazes committed suicide in his cell in Thailand on July 12th before being transferred to the United States.
According to a forfeiture complaint issued by the eastern district of California, Alexandre Cazes, a 26 year old Canadian, founded AlphaBay in 2014 while being aware of the illegal nature of the enterprise, including stating in his “about me” the goal to transform AlphaBay in the “largest eBay-style underworld market-place”. Cazes’ staff consisted of 8-10 people whose job was to moderate disputes among vendors and buyers, reimburse buyers’ bitcoin if they saw fit, and to market their platform.
Hansa and AlphaBay were self-regulating markets, with clear rules based on consumer satisfaction. The key to their success was not clever encryption, the use of cryptocurrencies or even Tor: it was good old-fashioned customer service. Reputation is everything on the darknet markets, and this can only be held when good feedback is constantly provided. Interviewed by Motherboard in 2014, a darknet seller confided that “being a vendor online is just like owning or managing a business—the only difference being that the government decided that what we do is illegal”.
By continuously shutting down feedback-based darknet drug markets, law enforcers strengthen the stigma around drugs and addiction. It’s safer to access such markets from the comfort of your own house, ending the necessity to encounter a dealer (with high chances of being armed) at a dark alley. The EU itself released a report where it reads “research shows that customers value the quality and range of products offered by (darknet) markets, as well as the higher level of security than that afforded by street drug markets”. Further studies showed similar findings.
After Silk Road’s fall in 2014, users acknowledged the fact no one is completely safe online, and there’s no guarantee the platform you use today will be there tomorrow. Fortunately, market ‘shocks’ aren’t that shocking anymore, and dark-markets are organisms similar to hydras, you cut one head off and two more appear. The architects behind them also learn from somebody else’s mistakes, and because of it today there are decentralized and even legal-friendly options. When dealing online, the risk lies not in what one is doing, but the mistakes one makes. Although internet’s cyclical spect, it’s necessary to never settle for less, safety is never enough and cannot be underestimated*.
We didn’t know Cazes enough to understand his motivations and beliefs, yet he swam against the conventional political current and towards a free-market micro-economy, creating a market based on trading rules put in place to get the best solution for everybody. Like the people before him, he hurt nobody but himself, which certainly wouldn’t have happened if he had lived enough to be judged and convicted. Cazes took his life in order to not end up like Ross Ulbricht, forever sentenced to an existence between four walls. The kings shot the messenger, but the message will never be destroyed.
Dark-markets are ephemeral solutions to eternal desires, they won’t cease to exist despite all law enforcement available on earth and taxpayer’s money uselessly spent. Victimless actions, despite their moral aspects, concerns only the ones involved. Aaron himself said “as the Internet breaks down the last justifications for a professional class of politicians, it also builds up the tools for replacing them”, and the political class we know today is doomed to evolve, and so are the traditional notions of trade. We long learned that if there’s a will, there’s a way, regardless of the time it takes and the people in power.
*Keeping yourself safe online, either by exchanging goods or advocating for a non-conventional cause, is far from being an easy task, especially for anti-establishment, pro-freedom activists, but there are measures you can take in order to not get caught. An article on online safety will soon be on this website.
Picture: Author Screenshot
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