How the government, criminals and a growing number of everyday people are colliding in Deep Web’s murky seas.
With few physical frontiers to conquer, our generation is hardly full of explorers. But somewhere along the line, without even realizing it, we all contributed to the creation of a very different kind of frontier, a digital one. With everything from the mundane to sex, murder and revolution, it’s every bit as chaotic as the wild west was. Governments try to define it, leash it muzzle it and tell it to be good. Entrepreneurs fill their bank accounts with it, whistleblowers and a new wave of journalists try to keep it free and transparent, all while some attempt to throw a wrench in the gears just to watch chaos ensue. In the ever-evolving techno-sphere, only one thing is certain; the struggle for its heart will define our generation.
The prospect of containing or even monitoring something as vast and amorphous as the Internet is daunting, if not impossible. But, as we now know well, the largest most organized effort to exert influence over the web is the one being orchestrated by the U.S. Government’s intelligence and law enforcement communities. Even with unparalleled levels of money, manpower and influence, they’re fighting an ever-steepening uphill battle due to a whole lot of bad PR and calls for reform. Private agencies are also certainly trying in their own respective way. In fact, it’s truly shocking how many companies have access to your private information. Whether it’s unapologetic, nearly constant data mining, SOPA, PRISM or the virtually unchecked sweeping monitoring practices of the NSA, our digital privacy is under a relentless assault. Like it or not, essentially every part of your digital history is landing in unfamiliar hands.
When confronted with this reality, there are basically two options: resign yourself to the fact that a lack of digital privacy is the new normal, or do everything possible to fight the current. Fast-growing legions of those who have chosen the ladder are congregating around a piece of software called Tor. In short, Tor allows its users to conduct their digital business free from prying eyes by shrouding their IP addresses in anonymity. What dark cabal of genius coders dreamed this up? A sect of the very government that’s now struggling to police it, of course.
Yes, in an ironic twist, it was a team from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory under the direction of DARPA that created what NSA calls “the king high-secure, low-latency anonymity” and did I mention it’s free, it’s easy and it’s a total law enforcement nightmare?
In theory, the ability to flip a defiant, nearly impenetrable barrier of middle fingers to those who’d seek to monitor us is great. Dissent and unpopular opinions can be spoken freely without fear of reprisal or persecution, which is especially important in countries where governments are much more draconian than our own. However, total anonymity comes with a price. It protects everyone, including some truly awful humans that hide their identities in order to partake in deplorable conduct. This includes murderers, child pornographers, weapons traffickers and basically everything else you can imagine.
That “everything else” includes the rise, fall and subsequent re-birth of a now famous Deep Web marketplace called The Silk Road. In case you’re not in the know, The Silk Road is an Amazon-style site where there are nearly one million users are buying everything from apparel and firearms to every illegal drug known to mankind with Bitcoins (totally anonymously of course). The Feds managed to identify bust the site’s supposed founder, a 29-year-old Libertarian named Ross Ulbricht, rather dramatically, after a long investigation on a slew of drug and murder charges.
Short-term victories aside, law-enforcement agencies have a totally out of control phenomenon to contend with when it comes to the Tor and the Deep Web. Even the shutdown of The Silk Road was embarrassingly short. “Silk Road 2.0” was up and running within just a few weeks of the original being pulled down. Though this type of defiance may seem like par for the course online, I would argue that it’s hugely significant and a harbinger of what’s to come. Due to The Silk Road’s success, there are and will continue to be more vice sites popping up under the protection of Deep Web.
But, the situation may not be as malevolent as it sounds. The vast majority of sales on the Silk Road revolve around recreational drugs, especially marijuana . With public support for marijuana legalization at an all-time high, now is the time for the government stop postponing the inevitable. If they don’t, law enforcement agencies will find themselves scrambling to contain even more rampant recreational pot use thanks to an unprecedented level of online anonymity, rather than putting their resources toward the truly bad stuff (which is plentiful).
On a related note, this also applies to media piracy on the conventional web. You can take down Napster, Mega-Upload, The Pirate Bay (or try to, anyway), and arrest a few people, but has that stopped the activity?
Actually, there has been marked decline in digital piracy, but it has little to do with law enforcement and everything to do with disruptive, forward-thinking services like Netflix, Hulu and others. If you give people quality, affordable options, they’ll happily take them. If you don’t, they’ll get what they want one way or another.
The real way to gain a considerable amount of control and influence over the trajectory of the web is not by prosecuting the Pirate Bays and Silk Roads of the world, or by trying to monitor everything everyone does, but by becoming a facilitator of innovation that listening to the will of the people. To do this properly, funds need to be radically reallocated away from law enforcement and toward technology. If governments did this on a wide scale, piracy could be made nearly obsolete and demand for sites like the Silk Road would be greatly diminished. Under such an initiative, artists could be compensated, massively profitable new taxes could be levied on marijuana sales and people would be far less skeptical of the government.
But, in the meantime, things stand as they are. Governmental enforcement agencies continue to repeat themselves, as do Tor users, Deep Web communities and websites that shrug their shoulders at the law. As long as the digital inquisition from above continues, so too will the natural, defiant inclination to protect ourselves by any means necessary, whether it's beneath Tor’s umbrella of obscurity, or otherwise.
Michael Phillip Nelson is the host of the Midwest Real Podcast and a freelance writer.