The FBI’s recent block of illegal-goods trading site Silk Road uncovered some deep potholes in the Information Superhighway. Regular World Wide Web commuters never see these craters. Our rides down Memory Lane in Facebook and our lightning-fast races through Twitter rarely reveal this dark side of the Internet, a place where anything, and anyone, can be bought and sold with a barely-traceable international digital currency.
The shining hero’s journey that is the myth of the Internet will need a good buffing after this. We like to think of the Web and its base, the Internet, as a talisman of freedom, a bright promise of liberation from oppression. It’s the Internet as Luke Skywalker, a simple and pure force destined to bring balance back to the universe. Until, of course, it isn’t.
In the dust of the closure of Silk Road (“the drug world’s equivalent of EBay” – LA Times), grumblings about digital technology will resurface. Pundits will say “something has to be done” about the Bitcoin and Tor networks that make illegal drug sites possible. Parents will wonder anew what their kids are buying online. Grandparents will admonish the lack of security in online transactions.
Bad things happen to good technology
Legendary Tennesseean Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton shuttled moonshine in a Ford Model T he called “3 Jug” after trading three jugs of his wares for the trusty old truck. In 1904, criminal Bert Oakman of Hillsboro, Oregon stole a bicycle to escape from police after murdering a friend who threatened to tell Oakman’s fiancee about Oakman’s wife back east. No-one banned Model T’s or bicycles when these men met the law.
Examining the availability of the tools and technology used in crimes is our natural tendency. We’ve had some success where limiting certain tech’s use resulted in less tragedy, e.g., the raising of the legal drinking age from 18 to 21 years of age decreased youth highway fatalities.
There will always be the ones who defend the technology itself and bristle at the idea of mandates on its use, but mantras like the NRA’s “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people” come up as empty. A Gallup poll from early 2013 showed that 91% of Americans would vote for a law requiring criminal background checks before gun purchases. We can also see the lack of gun deaths in the UK and other countries that ban or highly regulate ownership. The technology per se as free-wheeling hero doesn’t hold weight.
Not So Fast
Regulating Bitcoin would require nothing short of a total redesign of international law, trading agreements, and belief systems. Bitcoin is a grass-roots digital currency that is “mined” through having your computer work on complicated math equations or it is bought for the market-value equivalent in US dollars (or other currencies). The value of one Bitcoin changes on a daily market, much like stock prices. If a person is patient, she can buy Bitcoins at a low price and sell them at a high one at a later date.
Tor networks prove to be just as complex. Tor technology uses the Internet’s connection to millions of computers to provide private pathways for data. A Tor supporter volunteers her laptop to be used for masked and encrypted transfers of data from one user to the other. Tor networks are necessary for the anonymous transfer of Bitcoins.
Interpol and the FBI can support laws to ban Tor software. The law enforcement agencies can put up bait sites and then track the IP addresses that download the software, much like the way they nab child pornographers. Unfortunately, international efforts to ban child pornography have only had small victories so far, despite the worldwide disdain for the crime. Silk Road, while deadly, would not evoke such an unequivocal and unanimous hate. People and countries famously disagree on drug laws. International crime-fighters would have an uphill climb to consensus on banning drug-selling sites, let along regulating Bitcoin and Tor as tools of those sites. These kind of sites are here to stay. Already on Silk Road’s Facebook page, users are posting multiple alternative sites to fill the void.
Just Speed Bumps
Ultimately, speed bumps like Silk Road do little to stop web (or drug) traffic. We accept new tech, knowing it brings bad with the good. We adopted the early Ford motor cars, moonshine-hauler warts and all. Bicycles, despite their popularity with purse-stealers, are pervasive in our culture. The innovation that these inventions brought to our economy was too powerful to pass up.
Still, we managed to build up relatively common “rules of the road” around automobile driving (“wrong side/right side” debate aside). Perhaps we each start learning more about Bitcoin, Tor, and some ways we can pop the lid on the dark engines that run on our shared digital roads.
Graphic Credit: modified (by me) version of the wikimedia commons Bitcoin image