Pirates, drugs and freedom of expression

I had unedited access to all types of books from a young age, which has led to a fascination of the dark side of humans.  Alice’s Wonderland revealed the arbitrary demands and heartless craziness of the adult world.   In the novels of Frances Hodgson Burnett, children were regularly abandoned, bereaved, neglected and ill-treated. And Long John Silver’s powerful mixture of charisma and self-destructiveness, individualism and recklessness fuelled dreams of adventure.

The story of Dread Pirate Roberts and The Silk Road  has all the elements of a best seller.PiratesLairMap  A secret market, masked pirate and accidental fight for freedom which redeems the villain.

The story hit the mainstream media with the arrest and sentencing of Ross Ulbricht aka Dread Pirate Roberts, the founder of The Silk Road.  The Silk Road operated on the Dark Web and was the largest online marketplace for illegal drugs. Earlier this year Ulbricht was sentenced to life imprisonment without payroll by a judge in the United States.

Silk Road and the Dark Web conjure up images from Pirates of the Caribbean and Tortuga Island. A dank and dirty spot where outlaws are safe and souls are for hire.   To many, the dark web is a place to buy bizarre and potentially illegal things. Silk Road was the first website to popularize this method.

But, the Dark Web is not as big and monstrous as the tales that have been concocted around it.

The World Wide Web has over a billion different sites, while current estimates put the number of Dark Web hidden sites at between 7000 and 30 000. That’s barely a fraction of content available elsewhere, on the Web.

For years there have been sites on the World Wide Web where you can easily buy a strangers identity or credit card details, to fund a fraudulent spending spree. Sites like Craigslist feature postings about selling or accessing illegal drugs hidden in street slang like Gina, Keta and Lucy.

Child porn is accessible on the Surface Web. In fact, it is rampant when compared with what’s available from hidden sites. Last year, the Internet Watch Foundation, a charity that collates child sexual abuse websites and works with law enforcement and hosting providers to have the content removed, found 31,266 URLs that contained child porn images. Of those URLs, only 51 of them, or 0.2 percent, were hosted on the dark web.

Terrorist forums are also hiding in full view of anyone with an Internet connection. Regular websites allow extremist supporters and prominent jihadis alike to communicate with one another and post brutal propaganda videos. Although many of these sites are shut down, a handful of other violent Islamic extremist sites continue to exist on the normal web and are used heavily today.

Beyond illicit marketplaces like Silk Road and its successor Agora, there’s much more to see on the Dark Web. For instance, it’s the best way for privacy activists to communicate with each other. There are also numerous online boards, wikis, and chats for people trying to divulge information they don’t want associated with their identity. Doctors can give impartial advice to drug users, who come out of the woodwork because of the anonymity awarded to them by the Dark Web; Chinese citizens can discuss whatever they like and circumvent The Great Firewall.

At the moment, the Dark Web is  used mostly for criminal purposes, but its relevance to the world of cybercrime, and other domains has been grossly exaggerated.

Look beyond the scaremongering, however, and the dark web actually has promise. In essence, it’s the World Wide Web as it was originally envisioned: a space beyond the control of individual countries, where ideas can be exchanged freely without fear of being censored. As countries continue to crack down on the freedom of the web, its dark counterpart is only going to become more relevant as a place to discuss and connect with each other. We shouldn’t let the myth of the Dark Web ruin that potential happy ending!

UPDATE:  How an IRS agent discovered the identity of the Silk Road kingpin using Google searches

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