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Silk Load

Article from Issue 161/2014

Sometimes when I'm watching the Internet news unfolding, I feel like I'm in one of those weird dreams where everything looks the same, but all reason is inverted in some way that only the people in the dream understand. The Internet brings down barriers, including those comforting barriers that provide a cozy space for our moral certainty to flourish. We lapse into approaching problems from the circle of our own experience, sometimes not noticing that we have traveled into very different places. And we mistake our viewpoint for our values, aligning ourselves with others who share a common attitude or rhetorical framework.

Dear Linux Pro Reader,

Sometimes when I'm watching the Internet news unfolding, I feel like I'm in one of those weird dreams where everything looks the same, but all reason is inverted in some way that only the people in the dream understand. The Internet brings down barriers, including those comforting barriers that provide a cozy space for our moral certainty to flourish. We lapse into approaching problems from the circle of our own experience, sometimes not noticing that we have traveled into very different places. And we mistake our viewpoint for our values, aligning ourselves with others who share a common attitude or rhetorical framework.

So rare it is for people in the news to take responsibility for their actions and own up to their mistakes. I was struck by the candor, humility, and accountability of a community-minded admin who recently announced to his users that the network had been hacked. When describing the scenario that led to the attack, this conscientious soul was quite concerned and self-reflective, stating, "In retrospect, this was incredibly foolish, and I take full responsibility for this decision." He even added, "I have failed you as a leader and am completely devastated by today's discoveries."

No passing the buck for this principled leader, who really seemed committed to getting it right and putting the house in order. What house did he live in? Actually, the earnest admin who unleashed this boy-scout-like apologia was none other than Defcon, administrator of the reconstituted market-for-everything Silk Road. His purpose for making this announcement was to reach out to his "community," in this case, an anonymous collection of drug dealers, drug users, pornographers, and other patrons of secret transactions. The problem he faced was that someone had cleaned the entire Silk Road escrow system out of bitcoins – a haul estimated at approximately US$  2.8 million, depending on whatever value you assign to the highly volatile bitcoin digital currency.

In the spirit of solidarity and empathy for the commonweal, Defcon invited readers to review the attacker's "dishonest actions and use whatever means you deem necessary to bring this person to justice." In this case, since most Silk Road transactions are illegal, that justice would not be a matter of calling the local constable but would presumably include whatever means drug dealers use to settle things among themselves. If his version of justice incorporates some of the techniques allegedly attempted by his predecessor "Dread Pirate Roberts" at the Silk Road 1.0 site, it would allegedly include murder.

Call me old fashioned, but I think candor and accountability are really good things, but drug dealing, money laundering, and murder are not such good things. Defcon's community spirit and moral beacon shining across the murky ocean of the clandestine economy is an interesting metaphor for the anonymity tools that underpin the Silk Road phenomenon, Tor and Bitcoin, which were developed with all the best intentions but were unleashed into a world that is much more morally diverse than the design space for which these tools were originally intended.

Just as we are instinctively attracted to Defcon's (real or feigned?) community spirit, so we are brought along with the goals of Tor and Bitcoin, falling in line with a tendency to cheer for their users wherever they might appear. We gotta get over that. Anonymity networks are to protect free speech and freedom from surveillance – not drug deals. It might be difficult to imagine what we can do about that, but at least we need to be able to say it: Standing up for anonymity does not automatically make you into an anarchist who has no right to an opinion on what people do beneath this cloak of secrecy. Anyone who tells you differently is selling you a load of silk.

Joe Casad, Editor in Chief

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