The Surveillance State (4)
Edward Snowden is safe in Russia, but the fates of journalists who helped him and published his leaks are now of more concern for WikiLeaks, Julian Assange said in an exclusive interview with RT Spanish ‘Behind the News’ host Eva Golinger.
Assange also shared his views on the NSA scandal in Latin America and the future of freedom of information.
He criticized the US and the White House for abusing its power more than any other administration in history, stressing that President Obama has prosecuted twice as many journalists under the espionage act as all previous US presidents combined since 1917.
US can blackmail almost every influential person in Latin America
Eva Gollinger: We’re at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, and with us is the founder and publisher of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange.
Issues such as cyber warfare, espionage, surveillance, you have analyzed and written extensively about. Your organization WikiLeaks has exposed the way the US and its allies use these mechanisms to advance their power in influencing the world and the recent documents and revelations made public by Snowden, a former National Security Agency analyst, have caused a furious reaction throughout Latin America. Documents particularly pointing to mass surveillance and data collection of different Latin American nations, but especially Latin American leaders, heads of states in Brazil and Mexico, the Ecuador government, in Venezuela and strategic interests. How have you viewed the revelations by Snowden and the impact they have had on Latin America and the reaction from these Latin American governments?
Julian Assange: Ninety-eight percent of Latin American telecommunications to the rest of the world - that means SMS, phone, email etc. - passes through the US. That’s a function of the geography of the Americas, and as a result the US has what its intelligence agencies call a ‘home field advantage’, where they can easily intercept these communications that pass through them, index them, store aspects of them forever, and therefore gain understanding of how Latin America is behaving, where it is moving, its economic transfers, the activities of its leaders and major players.
That permits the US to predict in some ways the behavior of Latin American leaders and interests, and it also permits them to blackmail. Nearly every significant person in Latin America is blackmailable by the US, because the US has access to those telecommunications records that have passed through the US, as well as other records it has obtained within LA by planting fiber optic taps, surveillance equipment at embassies and DA bases. Even one of those revealed in Ecuador as a result of Snowden`s leaks.
So you have a situation where the US has mapped out the entire community structure, the relations between every individual who has any chance of having any influence in Latin America. And is able to shift and play off different parties against one another. If you say that it is true then why did Maduro win the Venezuelan presidential election? Why did president Correa win with a significant majority in the Ecuadorean elections, given the US attitude towards these two states?
Well it`s not a function of the US not having enough intelligence data about Latin America, it’s a function of the US taking its eye for a 10 year period off Latin America, and putting its eye on the Middle East and to a degree on to Asia as well. And during that period a number of Latin American states have developed an increased independence from the US and its activities and now unfortunately the US is turning its interests back to Latin America. But unlike 10 years ago, it has a worldwide mass surveillance apparatus to detect nearly every single person.
US controls states not invading them
EG: The President of Brazil Dilma Rousseff recently in her speech before the UN General Assembly had very harsh strong words for the US mass espionage program, and particularly for President Barack Obama, who was there in her presence when she gave the speech, and she not only denounced and condemned that espionage as a violation of sovereignty, but she also called for the creation of an independent internet and communications platform within Latin American nations, or even internationally, that is not subject to US control.
Countries like Venezuela have developed fiber optic cables with the Caribbean, with Cuba exclusively having also launched communication satellites into space to ensure their own communication sovereignty. Is this the solution to protecting them against this type of US invasion and violation through technological sovereignty?
JA: Look, just like there is no meaningful sovereignty without control of freedom of movement, no meaningful sovereignty without economic sovereignty, there is no meaningful sovereignty without control of your own communications. It’s freedom of movement, freedom of communication, freedom of economic interaction that defines a state. Now the US has been aggressively trying to interdict economic exchange through interception of control over Swift, Visa, MasterCard, payments going through Latin America via the Bank of America. But it’s also delving in to Latin American major computer systems, operate important segments of government and the media and Pertobras in Brazil and other major economic interests and interfering with the sovereignty of communications. That’s what it is about.
You know, when is a person or an organization is part of one state or another? Well, it’s part of a state if that state can control its movements, its economic interchange or its telecommunications interchange, the US is grabbing hold of economic interaction and telecommunications interaction and so what is left is some degree of control of the physical force in a state. Even that is being eroded.
When we look at what happened in the Edward Snowden case when the US sprayed out extradition requests, Neil McBride, the same national security prosecutor who is prosecuting me, behind that sprayed out extradition requests for Edward Snowden to Venezuela, to Bolivia, to Hong Kong, to Iceland, to Ireland. That was about trying to take advantage of treaty arrangements which force the police and judicial systems of other countries to obey the interests of the US government.
So by subordinating regulatory or policing systems in treaty arrangements to another government, that third component – the control of use of force – is also given away. In academic theory about what is happening there, we call this ‘lawfare’, which is using international treaty arrangements and multilateral organizations to get the territory or gains that you would normally get by war instead by law. When you couple that activity to telecommunications interception and economic interception then in fact you control the state without invading it. And that’s what leaders and policymakers must be aware of in Latin America. That there’s no effective sovereignty without sovereignty in the most important parts – economic interaction, telecommunications and control of police and judicial instruments.
EG: But is it possible knowing also what you know of about the US capacity in terms of its technology and its massive reach through surveillance that in Latin America they can develop sovereign technology that would be free from US control, or is it merely a dream?
JA: Well, this idea that Dilma proposed of perhaps setting up an international regulatory commission for the internet. There are some that the US is terrified of: the ITU – the international communications union - taking over regulation of key aspects of the internet. ITU is European-dominated, has been for many years. I don’t believe that the internet should be dominated by any one region and to a degree it shouldn’t be dominated by governments. I mean, the great liberty of communications for individuals and trade for businesses has come about because of a lack of control by states.
See, some of the proposals by Dilma being put forward are not a mechanism to give Brazilians greater freedom from interception, rather they are a mechanism to give the Brazilian government equal access to that intercepted information. So we must be quite careful. There’s a natural tendency by states, of course, to want to increase their own power. And they are more concerned in increasing their domestic power really, than they are typically concerned by the United States increasing its power.
Google spends more money to lobby in Washington than Lockheed Martin
EG: I want to talk about Google. Because you’ve criticized Google extensively and also referred to it as an extension of US foreign policy and power. These are strong statements to make about a service that is used around the world. And for example in many Latin American countries, even the highest levels of government, have Gmail accounts. So can you elaborate a little bit on why you perceive Google as such a danger to our society and what are the alternatives?
JA: I wrote about that this year in my book ‘Cypherpunks’ and some recent articles reviewing the chairman of Google’s book ‘The New Digital Age’. In that book it’s very clear what is happening. Google is presenting itself to Washington as a geopolitical visionary who can show the US the way forward in Latin America, in Asia, in Europe and so on. And that’s quite a reactionary piece of work. With backcover praise chosen pre-publication by Henry Kissinger, Madeleine Albright, Tony Blair, [Michael] Hayden, the former head of the National Security Agency, the NSA. The primary acknowledgement is to Henry Kissinger.
So where’s that coming from? That is coming from Google that started out in California as part of grad student culture in Stanford University, pretty nice, naïve, wanting to build services that the world would use. But as Google got big it got close to government. As it tried to enter into foreign markets it became reliant on the State Department to the degree where the head of Google ideas is now immediately a former advisor of Hillary Clinton and Rice from the State Department.
This close nexus and interaction between Google and the State Department is something that we’ve documented on WikiLeaks in releases and also in cables - meetings between key State Department advisors and execs of Google. It wasn’t much of a surprise when we learnt that as far back as 2009 Google had paired up with the National Security Agency to enter into the PRISM program.
So we can see that Google is now part of Family America. It spends more money now on lobbying in Washington than Lockheed Martin. In the Google book it even states that what Lockheed Martin was to the 20th century, hi-tech companies will be to the 21st. It’s a really quite strong form of neo-imperialism. And I don’t want to use that phrase as some sort of hackneyed Marxist expression, but that’s what it’s about – jacking in the entire world into the US economic and informational system.
Banking blockade against WikiLeaks is similar to blockade against Cuba
EG: Your organization WikiLeaks has published hundreds of thousands of documents, many of them from the US government, classified documents. You’ve come under heavy fire, the organization has come under attack. And yet you continue to publish documents. Is that going to go on, how is WikiLeaks functioning and are the attacks also continuing?
JA: The attacks are continuing. Let’s go back to 2010. Pentagon gave a 40-minute public press conference. During that press conference they made a demand to us, the organization, to me personally. “You must destroy everything that we had published in relation to the US government.” Destroy everything we were going to publish. And cease stealing with [the help of] US military whistleblowers or else we will be compelled to do so. As a result we said no, we were not going to do so. We’re a publisher, we made a promise to our sources and the public to publish fearlessly and frankly.
The US government then engaged in a three-year-long war against WikiLeaks, which continues to this day. It started up a whole government investigation, including over 12 different agencies including the CIA, publicly declaring the grand jury into WikiLeaks, that investigation the Department of Justice admits as recently as August 23 continues.
The position that we’re in is that our important source of WikiLeaks, Private Manning, has been sentenced to 35 years. A tactical victory, believe it or not, for his defense team, because the US was demanding life imprisonment without parole. And probably as a result of our intervention in the Edward Snowden matter, we know it for a fact that the sentiment in Washington against WikiLeaks as a result of the Edward Snowden matter is increasingly adverse.
But the organization continues to publish, continues to fight in courts where we’ve intervened in multiple times. In the Bradley Manning case we’ve had a series of victorious court cases against the banking blockade. Interestingly all court cases that WikiLeaks has been involved and that have come to a judgment, it has won. There have been significant victories in the European Parliament where we’ve managed to push forward legislation which outlaws this sort of banking blockade that is against us, the blockade that’s similar to that blockade that’s happening against Cuba.
Interestingly in relation to financial blockades and the freedom of economic interaction, that sovereign right for states to interact within states, to interact economically. The internet has meant that economic interaction and communication are now merged together. So when the US wants to intercept and surveil [sic] the economic interactions between people and companies, it just intercepts the internet and it gets both of these at the same time. Similarly if it wants to block off economic interaction with some bank, say in Iran, well it can just block off telecommunications with that bank.
Espionage Act: Obama prosecuted twice as many people than all previous presidents
EG: You mentioned Private Manning's case. And in that case, now known as Chelsea Manning, she was accused of espionage for passing documents to a media organization. Classified documents. But not to the so-called traditional enemies. So this treatment now of media organizations or journalists as an enemy - is that dangerous in terms of whistleblowers for one? But also the media outlets? And do you think that this forms part of what President Barak Obama referred to in his speech before the UN recently as the exceptionalism of the US. This kind of persecution, treatment of media and whistleblowers as terrorists.
JA: Look, whenever you see a president talk about exceptionalism, what he's trying to say is the rules of civil behaviour doesn't apply to him. Whether that's in invading another country or whether that’s abuse of laws at home. In relation to Barack Obama's use of the espionage act against alleged journalistic sources and journalists, that’s something new. So it’s very important that people understand that this is not just a bit more of the same, it’s a radical change.
Barack Obama has prosecuted more people under the espionage act, more journalistic sources under the espionage act than all previous presidents combined, going back to 1917. In fact he’s prosecuted double the number. So this is a deliberate conscious decision by the White House to create a chilling effect, using the espionage act as opposed to some other mechanism. In the case of Bradley [now Chelsea] Manning there’s no allegation, has never been an allegation that he has passed information on to another country, that he has sold information, that he was intending to harm the United States or its people in any manner whatsoever. So that's just a linguistic abuse to call speaking to the media espionage. Similarly it's a linguistic abuse to say that WikiLeaks as a publisher, when it publishes, is conducting espionage.
EG: I want to talk about your case a little bit. We're here in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where you’ve been for over a year, close to a year-and-a-half. And as of now there has been no resolution to the situation. You've been given asylum by Ecuador, but you can't get to Ecuador because the British government would detain you if you set foot outside these doors. Recently the foreign minister of Ecuador, Ricardo Patino, has confirmed the fact that they have been working aggressively with the UK government trying to reach a solution. They've been unsuccessful and now they're considering taking a case to a foreign international court: violation of sovereignty as well as the right to asylum amongst other rights that have been violated. How do you see the resolution to this situation? And is there one?
JA: It's a political, diplomatic, legal mix. I think in a reasonably short time frame - year, year-and-a-half actually, there are some good signs that there will be a resolution. That time is on my side in this situation, because as times goes by, more of the facts of the situation are coming out. We've been filing criminal cases in Sweden, in Germany, in relation to intelligence activity against the organisation there. So I think the position of the some of the players involved is becoming aggressively more untenable as time goes by. And we have seen even the Conservative Lord Mayor of London Boris Johnson denounce the expenditure of the police outside this embassy spying on me. He said that now this money amount to $10 million and should be spent on frontline policing, what police are meant to do, not ringing this embassy.
EG: And both you and Edward Snowden have received asylum in Latin American nations. You in Ecuador and he's been offered asylum in Venezuela and Bolivia and also in Nicaragua. He is in Russia with temporary asylum which your organization helped him obtain. But how do you view the fact that it has been Latin American nations, traditionally known as less powerful and developing countries, that they had the courage to stand up to US power and support both of you.
JA: It's extremely interesting, isn't it? We were involved in filling out asylum requests for Edward Snowden formally and informally to around 20 different nations. Some because we thought there was a decent chance, others because we wanted to show the public the refusal to generate some public debate and awareness about how the government is behaving. But you're right, in terms of those nations that stepped forward, it was Latin America and Russia. Not all of Latin America either, but Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador showing a keen interest. What does that mean?
These are not very powerful countries. Russia we can understand, it has its own nuclear armaments, it’s geographically fairly independent. Whereas Latin America is not so. That's really I think is an expression of Latin American democracy, where you have governments who feel the need to be responsible to their people, who feel the need to live up to the sort of values that they are preaching or they will held to account by the population.
And so I see that as a part of the democratic nature of Venezuela, Ecuador and perhaps now even Brazil, which hasn't yet made an offer, but it's starting to respond - in relation to the surveillance matter, in protecting Glenn Greenwald - it's starting to respond to the public pressure there.
EG: Also a shift in global power and the growing sentiment of sovereignty and independence in Latin America, but I want to ask about something…
JA: You can compare in an interesting way, say Germany and Venezuela. So in Germany privacy is a really big concern, it's probably of all the medium sized countries, privacy is the most in value in Germany, because of what happened in the WWII, and some other cultural aspects. And in Germany we had Angela Merkel up for election. So not only did these events about Edward Snowden's asylum and then spying occur in the context where a country is interested in privacy, but in the context of a country that had federal election. And with reporters like Laura Poitras, based in Germany, working with Der Spiegel, publishing about German documents. And yet the German government did not offer Snowden asylum, did not seek to transport him or assist him in any manner whatsoever.
So I think this is an example when even if the population has the democratic desire, population has the will, that the government doesn't properly reflect the will of the population. Whereas we can see in Ecuador and Venezuela, that the government is more...
EG: Bolivia as well…
JA: …and Bolivia… that the government is more responsive. At least in relation to sovereignty issues, to the demands of the population.
Snowden is safe, I am more worried about Sarah Harrison, Guardian journalists
EG: Unwilling to subordinate itself to US power. I can only get in one last question. I want to throw in a few things.
One is the issue if the future of journalism. Is investigative journalism under extinction because of this treatment and prosecution of journalists who are exposing US abuses and those also other powerful entities around the world and are therefore being treated as terrorists or enemies? Snowden's possibilities in the future: what awaits him in terms of whistleblowers’ treatment? Would he come under severe prosecution by the US? And also I want to tie into all of that a question about the film that's coming out. Is it another attempt, the same thing in terms of trying to discredit and distort the work that you're doing, WikiLeaks is doing, Snowden is doing? Anyone, who's trying to expose those abuses?
JA: Edward Snowden: he's now safe in Russia. He has asylum for a one-year period formally. But assuming he doesn't run anyone over in a car, I imagine that the Russians will be happy to extent that indefinitely. I’m more concerned in terms of present people at risk, with our journalist Sarah Harrison, who was involved in getting Edward Snowden out of Hong Kong, spent 39 days with him in the Moscow airport, protecting him filing asylum applications and is still in Russia. Now, she's from the UK, as we know. The Guardian newspaper was raided, Glenn Greenwald’s partner detained for nine hours on account of terrorism charges here without charge. A formal investigation, a formal terrorism investigation has started up in relation to all those people.
EG: Well the head of MI5 has also just declared that Edward Snowden, his documents have placed national security in danger…
JA: Yeah, I mean just absurd. But also it's a position by the UK which is clearly that they're going after anyone who has had something to do with this matter, probably in order to show to the US that they feel their pain and that they are a part of the same club. And possibly in relation to GCHQ. So that's a concern for us, what will happen to Sarah Harrison? But I think if we look at the bigger picture, OK, yes, there’s some development in the US and the UK, which is extremely serious. It's obvious to everyone. The rule of law is gradually starting to collapse. The mechanisms of government are lifting off from the population, from the judicial system. The judicial processes are becoming more and more secret. Here, introduction of a secret court.
Even the Labour Party here, Ed Miliband from the Labour Party pushing legislation saying that soldiers should not be able to be criticized, adding them to hate speech legislation. This is a sort of proto-fascism. I mean, that's a strong thing to say, but I think that's a correct description. And the US - yes, that is making people extremely timid. It has made. The Guardian does good work here, but it has made the Guardian also very timid in its publications. It's been holding a lot of stories back. It's been extensively redacting, it has been holding documents back, same in the US.
From the point of view of WikiLeaks as a publisher, of course, we think that's great, that we we'll be the only player left in the field. From the point of view of Julian Assange as a free speech activist, I think that's an abomination and extremely concerning. On the other hand, just because you can smell the gun powder in the air, you can smell the heat of the battle between those people, who are revealing information about the crimes of state, and war crimes and mass surveillance and so on. And those who are trying to suppress it. It doesn't tell you which side is winning.
There's a serious conflict going on between a growing national security system in the West and those people who are trying to expose what that system is doing. That's for sure. Which one of these two groups is winning is not clear. We actually have some pretty important winds under our belt as well as saying many journalists are surveyed and prosecuted.
EG: The film?
JA: OK, so the film, Fifth Estate ...or actually introduced already…
EG: Do you think it’s an attempt to discredit you and your organization?
JA: I don't sort of look at the things that way. This film comes from Hollywood. I know the book that it was based on. The books were definitely an attempt to do precisely that. DreamWorks has picked the two most discredited libellous books out of dozens of books available for it to pick. But it's coming out of a particular milieu about.. within Hollywood and that constraints, it seems, what scripts can be written and what things would get distribution. I don't know if that was the intent of the filmmakers. It's certainly the result, but it's been doing quite poorly in the reviews.
I think the information we have published about it was pretty successful in knocking out any view that is inaccurate history. It's interesting to see that in the America's Disney, who's responsible for the distribution there, has been putting up posters of me with the word ‘traitor’ emblazoned across my face. You know, a laughable concept ‘cos because I'm an Australian, I couldn't even be a traitor, in theory, to the United States. I mean it's a type of libel.
I think ultimately people are starting to become immune to those sorts of attacks. There’s been so many as time is going by. And people who’ve been watching the WikiLeaks saga have seen many of these attacks, having seen that they've turned out not to be true. So I think our base is not going to be affected by the film.
Your Crack Is in the Mail
Why did it take the FBI so long to shut down Silk Road?
On the Silk Road website, every drug you can think of — and a dizzying number of others, too — have been on open sale for years, from crack, heroin, and LSD, to a new generation of “research chemicals” that exist just outside the reach of the law.
Activists, dealers and users have effectively used the site to declare an independent state online where all commerce, within certain boundaries, is permitted, and all under the auspices of the site’s owner, who was — until this week — known as The Dread Pirate Roberts. The FBI allege that his true identity is that of Ross Ulbricht, the 29-year-old who was arrested in a raid on a public library in San Francisco on October 2.Ulbricht, originally from Austin, Texas, had been living in San Francisco under a fake name, say officials.
Until it was shut down by law enforcement, Silk Road had everything: Norwegians selling Cambodian mushrooms, Canadians selling Afghan heroin, and Brits selling concentrated cannabis tinctures from ancient Nepalese cannabis landraces. Most of the products there were illegal, but whether you wanted a quarter gram of heroin or a gram of glittering Peruvian escama de pescado cocaine, you were in the right place. Buying was as simple as Amazon or eBay: a simple matter of adding the goods to your shopping cart, and paying for them. The money was held in an escrow account hosted at the site, and although you had to supply a delivery address, this could be encrypted, and then deleted as soon as the goods turned up.
Silk Road’s turnover reached $22 million a year within its first year of operation, according to security researcher Nicolas Christin, and the site’s owners took a commission on each sale of around six per cent — or $143,000 per month. In its indictment, the FBI says that Ulbricht pulled in $80 million during his time at the helm.
The site was not just popular for buying and selling, either. Its forum was busy too, with over 100,000 posts, 9,000 topics, and 11,000 users in the bustling community pages. The conversations there would weave around the site’s holy trinity: drugs, smuggling and cryptography. All this had made it the most popular among a growing, hidden network of drug dealers whose activities were hosted online. So how come these services continued to exist, even though they are breaking the law in such a flagrant manner?
Life on the Dark Web
In order for its customers to be completely untraceable, and therefore invulnerable to legal prosecution, the Silk Road was hosted on a hidden service, buried away on the Dark Web, far from the reach of Google. Their home is Tor, an alternative web-like space that swarms with users who travel through virtual tunnels that exist beneath the everyday web. Users — both dealers and their customers — have complete anonymity, and until it was revealed that he had made a series of calamitous errors, so did its owner.
Tor was created in 2001 by two computer science graduates at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They took a piece of undeployed software that had been written by the American Navy in 1995 to enable simple, anonymous internet use, and released their own version of it online, with the Navy’s permission.
“The navy had this project called Onion Routing, and it’s still going today,” explains information activist Andrew Lewman, who is the mouthpiece of the Tor organization.
“Its goal is to defeat network traffic analysis, which is the ability to know who you are, who you’re talking to, and how much data you send and receive. If you think of envelope data from your postal system, that’s the basis of intelligence gathering: For whatever reason, the Navy wanted this technology — they started the project but they didn’t have any intention of releasing it publicly. So Paul Syverson, a mathematician who’s still the core researcher for onion routing for the Navy, met grad student Roger Dingledine at a conference.”
“Roger said, ‘Have you ever thought of putting this on the internet?’ At the time the Navy had no plans for deployment. But Paul said sure.”
The original aim of the MIT grad students, Roger Dingledine and Nick Mathewson, was to give users control over their data when they went online. This was during the first dotcom boom, and many companies were giving away services for free — or rather, in exchange for your data and your browsing habits, which they would then sell on to third parties. Information activists rejected that business model and wanted to offer an alternative: so Dingeldine and Mathewson created Tor.
The vast majority of Tor users are simply people who want privacy when they go online, as the information gathered on us by search engines and social media grows daily. When researching sensitive or medical matters, some users don’t want Facebook or Google searches sending unsettlingly accurate adverts back at them. There were 36 million downloads of the software last year, and around one million daily users. In repressive regimes such as Iran, Tor users can access sites that are blocked by the government. But others, as The Dread Pirate Roberts knew, would use it to flout the law.
Inside the system
Like any other successful online retailer, Silk Road had its own reputation system. The forums at the site offered crowdsourced proof of the site’s best vendors and its worst scammers. In June 2012, when I was researching my book Drugs 2.0, reviews for the best LSD vendor ran to 81 pages, and had racked up 50,000 views; reviews of heroin dealers, meanwhile, ran to 22 pages with 8,000 views. Cocaine vendors were highly scrutinized — reviewed in a 292-page behemoth of a thread with over 90,000 views — while MDMA ran in at 129 pages with over 60,000 views.
The vendors themselves were often involved, and some have been happy to talk to me about their involvement with the site. One told me, for example, how dealing drugs on the site came with its own set of moral problems.
“The prospect of a twelve-year-old loaded to the gills on my MDMA is not a pleasant one,” he explained. “Enabling self-destructive/addictive behaviour is also upsetting to me. Dealing IRL, you can recognize abuse and let customers know you’re concerned, but online, there’s no way to tell.”
He admitted, though, that vending on the site was financially much more lucrative than selling in real life.
“IRL, you’re limited by your social circles, but here it’s only a question of supply, capital and hours in the day.”
“Packaging straight-up sucks to do,” he continued. “It’s extremely monotonous and requires a good degree of concentration to avoid making any mistakes that might endanger the customer receiving. Sometimes during especially busy periods, I spend 70, 80, 90 hours a week packaging, all of it extremely dull. Apart from the risk of being locked up for the next decade, it’s definitely the worst part. Dealing in real life is much more pleasant.”
Greater paranoia about the authorities is another downside: “Public drug markets are a giant middle finger to many powerful interests and so the political motivation to shut them down and lock up the people participating is out of proportion to the actual volume of illicit trade taking place. Last summer I was the ‘number one’ (basically highest-volume) vendor on the site for a while, and the fear really crept up on me. I’d lie awake at night thinking about it, worrying I was going to have my door kicked down and be dragged away at any moment. I’m much more comfortable with it now, but if I had known from the start how much mental torment and stress were involved with vending, I probably wouldn’t have started.”
However, there are upsides, he says: “I find the day-to-day grind of vending online worse than dealing IRL, but the human interaction online is often a lot more uplifting in some ways. Most people I sell to IRL are club kids/raver types so they’re more predisposed towards hedonism (which I of course have nothing against!) than using for more spiritual/emotional reasons so the feedback is less touching, which is a definite negative for me. I get emails from Silk Road customers telling me how the drugs I sell have helped them with emotional or spiritual or sexual problems, people mending broken relationships, rekindling intimacy.”
The motivation for people to use the Silk Road was high, given the prevailing legal climate. Mail is a vast trade, and small envelopes and packages are seldom opened, much less X-rayed or sniffed by dogs. That means capture, prosecution, and imprisonment look unlikely.
But if you were worried, one vendor on the site even offered a fake package service for the super-cautious: he’d deliver you an empty box or envelope for a small charge, just to get the mailman used to delivering packages from overseas.
Packaging by many vendors on the site was said to be exceptionally ingenious, and the protocol on the forums and in feedback forms below purchases was that these should never be discussed publicly, even on the Dark Web. What’s more, there are vendors in many countries so there’s no need to worry about international postal or customs issues: users in the US or UK or the Netherlands — or indeed, in dozens of countries worldwide — can buy drugs from dealers in their own countries, removing the danger of border staff targeting your package.
In just under two years, the Silk Road administrators used technology and ingenuity, along with innovative crowdsourcing solutions to internal and external threats, to achieve what thousands of campaigners had toiled since the 1960s to achieve: the right for people to buy and sell natural and artificial chemicals that affect their consciousness in ways they choose without interference from the state. It is a paradigm shift that cannot easily be reversed.
And even though the FBI believes it has arrested the site’s owner, the Silk Road’s payment and communication systems remain essentially impenetrable. It’s here that the early net evangelists’ vision of a world where information flows freely, where no central hierarchy rules, and where the network takes precedence over the individual has finally been realized. Whether you celebrate or lament the fact that drugs such as cocaine, heroin, LSD are now available online with just a little effort and very little likelihood of legal consequences, it is undeniable that we are at a turning point in legal history.
Through a decades-long process of chemical and technical innovation, human ingenuity has beaten the laws made by a political system that has responded to increased drug use by insisting on a harmful, expensive and counterproductive and ultimately failed strategy of criminalization.
Over the course of the century or so that drug laws have existed in any meaningful form, a clear pattern has emerged. As each law to prevent drug consumption is made, a means to circumvent it is sought, and found. Those means can be chemical, legal, social or technological. We stand today at a crossroads formed by those four elements, with the web making possible communication between distant strangers, facilitating the sharing of limitless quantities of information, and enabling the distribution of drugs anywhere in the world. Where do we go next?