Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Silk Road might have started as a libertarian experiment …

… but it was doomed to end as a fiefdom run by pirate kings

by Henry Farrell, Aeon

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. His latest book is The Political Economy of Trust (2009).

The Hidden Wiki holds the keys to a secret internet. To reach it, you need a special browser that can access ‘Tor Hidden Services’ – websites that have chosen to obscure their physical location. But even this browser isn’t enough. Like the Isla de Muerta in the film Pirates of the Caribbean, the landmarks of this hidden internet can be discovered only by those who already know where they are.

Sites such as the Hidden Wiki provide unreliable treasure maps. They publish lists of the special addresses for sites where you can use Bitcoin to buy drugs or stolen credit card numbers, play strange games, or simply talk, perhaps on subjects too delicate for the open web. The lists are often untrustworthy. Sometimes the addresses are out-of-date. Sometimes they are actively deceptive. One link might lead to a thriving marketplace for buying and selling stolen data; another, to a wrecker’s display of false lights, a cloned site designed to relieve you of your coin and give you nothing in return.

[…]

To this end, entrepreneurs have found it necessary to create and maintain communities, making rules, enforcing them, punishing rule-breakers, and turning towards violence when all else fails. They have, in effect, built petty versions of the very governments they are fleeing. As the US sociologist Charles Tilly argued, the modern state began as a protection racket, offering its subjects protection against outsiders and each other. The same logic is playing out today on the hidden internet, as would-be petty barons and pirate kings fight to tax and police their subjects while defending themselves against hostile incursions.

No entrepreneur of trust was more successful than the Texan Ross Ulbricht, who, under his ‘Dread Pirate Roberts’ pseudonym, founded and ran the notorious Silk Road marketplace for drugs and other contraband. And no-one better exemplifies how the libertarian dream of freedom from the state turned sour.

(Original here.)

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