Silk Road 2.0 has launched, and is totally legit - honest guv, it is

A new Dread Pirate Roberts has emerged, resurrecting a clone of the old Silk Road - but not necessarily its trustworthiness, yet

The Dread Pirate Roberts can never die, only the actors who play him. Say hello to Silk Road 2.0, run by a new DPR, launched on the deep web and offering all the delicious (and mostly illegal) drugs and contraband you could want.

The original Silk Road was shut down in October, with its alleged owner and operator - Ross Ulbricht - arrested. He’s currently in New York, awaiting trial, but since the site's closure there were claims that a group of Silk Road administrators had the site's source code and were going to re-launch it. Mashable scooped an interview with the new DPR:

We don't know this person's real name, location, age, gender or that there aren't multiple people behind the digital black mask. The new Dread Pirate Roberts could be anyone. The new Silk Road could be a well-orchestrated scam; the new Dread Pirate Roberts could be the old Dread Pirate Roberts, though he or she insists that's not the case.

...

Roberts himself is presumed to have been an active member of the original Silk Road. Based on his forum posts and our private communications, the new Roberts matches his predecessor in portraying Silk Road as a sort of libertarian utopia rather than a black market in the darkest corner of the web. He also has the same flare for symbolism.

He certainly does. Here's one of several similarly braggadoccio tweets he's been sending over the last few days:

Functionally, the site is almost identical to the first Silk Road. You need Tor to access it, purchases are made with bitcoins, and vendors list their wares for buyers to choose from in the same way with the site taking a small percentage cut of the money that trades hands. At least 170 vendors from the last site have confirmed their identities via encrypted messages to the new DPR and set up shop so far, with more expected.

Of course, nobody knows who the new DPR is, and considering the fallout from the last Silk Road's closure is still ongoing - with arrests of vendors in the US and Europe and the complete destruction of the trust that gave traders and buyers confidence to use the site - it is worth questioning the wisdom of setting up a duplicate.

Or, of trusting an unknown not to make the basic mistakes that Ulbricht is accused of having made in setting up the first Silk Road. It's hard to tell if that whiff in the air is weed or snake oil.

However, regardless of Silk Road 2.0's success or failure (or similarly, for competitors like Sheep Marketplace and Black Market Reloaded) it's obvious that law enforcement bodies are going to have to a problem keeping on top of absolutely everything on the deep web, black market-wise. As US Senator Tom Carper - the chairmain of the Chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, no less - has said, on hearing of Silk Road 2.0's launch:

This new website - launched barely a month after Federal agents shut down the original Silk Road - underscores the inescapable reality that technology is dynamic and ever-evolving and that government policy needs to adapt accordingly. Rather than play ‘whack-a-mole’ with the latest website, currency, or other method criminals are using in an effort to evade the law, we need to develop thoughtful, nimble and sensible federal policies that protect the public without stifling innovation and economic growth. Our committee intends to have that conversation – among others - at our hearing this month on virtual currency.

We've speculated that the closure of Silk Road made Bitcoin stronger before by breaking its link with the dark web and forcing governments to take it seriously as a commodity-slash-currency, and it looks like that's exactly what's happening. And, if you haven't been watching, the price of a bitcoin broke $300 for the first time this week. Things are looking frothy again for the digital currency.

Christmas comes early for customers of the dark web. (Photo: Getty)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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How the internet has democratised pornography

With people now free to circumvent the big studios, different bodies, tastes and even pubic hair styles are being represented online.

Our opinions and tastes are influenced by the media we consume: that much is obvious. But although it’s easy to have that conversation if the medium we are discussing is “safe for work”, pornography carries so much stigma that we only engage with it on simple terms. Porn is either “good” or “bad”: a magical tool for ­empowerment or a destructive influence on society. Many “pro-porn” campaigners shy away from nuanced critique, fearing it could lead to censorship. “Anti-porn” campaigners, convinced that porn is harmful by definition, need look no further than the mainstream tube sites – essentially, aggregators of clips from elsewhere – to gather examples that will back them up.

When we talk about the influence of porn, the emphasis is usually on a particular type of video – hardcore sex scenes featuring mostly slim, pubic-hairless women and faceless men: porn made for men about women. This kind of porn is credited with everything from the pornification of pop music to changing what we actually do in bed. Last year the UK government released a policy note that suggested porn was responsible for a rise in the number of young people trying anal sex. Although the original researcher, Cicely Marston, pointed out that there was no clear link between the two, the note prompted a broad debate about the impact of porn. But in doing so, we have already lost – by accepting a definition of “porn” shaped less by our desires than by the dominant players in the industry.

On the day you read this, one single site, PornHub, will get somewhere between four and five million visits from within the UK. Millions more will visit YouPorn, Tube8, Redtube or similar sites. It’s clear that they’re influential. Perhaps less clear is that they are not unbiased aggregators: they don’t just reflect our tastes, they shape what we think and how we live. We can see this even in simple editorial decisions such as categorisation: PornHub offers 14 categories by default, including anal, threesome and milf (“mum I’d like to f***”), and then “For Women” as a separate category. So standard is it for mainstream sites to assume their audience is straight and male that “point of view” porn has become synonymous with “top-down view of a man getting a blow job”. Tropes that have entered everyday life – such as shaved pubic hair – abound here.

Alongside categories and tags, tube sites also decide what you see at the top of their results and on the home page. Hence the videos you see at the top tend towards escalation to get clicks: biggest gang bang ever. Dirtiest slut. Horniest milf. To find porn that doesn’t fit this mould you must go out of your way to search for it. Few people do, of course, so the clickbait gets promoted more frequently, and this in turn shapes what we click on next time. Is it any wonder we’ve ended up with such a narrow definition of porn? In reality, the front page of PornHub reflects our desires about as accurately as the Daily Mail “sidebar of shame” reflects Kim Kardashian.

Perhaps what we need is more competition? All the sites I have mentioned are owned by the same company – MindGeek. Besides porn tube sites, MindGeek has a stake in other adult websites and production companies: Brazzers, Digital Playground, Twistys, PornMD and many more. Even tube sites not owned by MindGeek, such as Xhamster, usually follow the same model: lots of free content, plus algorithms that chase page views aggressively, so tending towards hardcore clickbait.

Because porn is increasingly defined by these sites, steps taken to tackle its spread often end up doing the opposite of what was intended. For instance, the British government’s Digital Economy Bill aims to reduce the influence of porn on young people by forcing porn sites to age-verify users, but will in fact hand more power to large companies. The big players have the resources to implement age verification easily, and even to use legislation as a way to expand further into the market. MindGeek is already developing age-verification software that can be licensed to other websites; so it’s likely that, when the bill’s rules come in, small porn producers will either go out of business or be compelled to license software from the big players.

There are glimmers of hope for the ethical porn consumer. Tube sites may dominate search results, but the internet has also helped revolutionise porn production. Aspiring producers and performers no longer need a contract with a studio – all that’s required is a camera and a platform to distribute their work. That platform might be their own website, a dedicated cam site, or even something as simple as Snapchat.

This democratisation of porn has had positive effects. There’s more diversity of body shape, sexual taste and even pubic hair style on a cam site than on the home page of PornHub. Pleasure takes a more central role, too: one of the most popular “games” on the webcam site Chaturbate is for performers to hook up sex toys to the website, with users paying to try to give them an orgasm. Crucially, without a studio, performers can set their own boundaries.

Kelly Pierce, a performer who now works mostly on cam, told me that one of the main benefits of working independently is a sense of security. “As long as you put time in you know you are going to make money doing it,” she said. “You don’t spend your time searching for shoots, but actually working towards monetary gain.” She also has more freedom in her work: “You have nobody to answer to but yourself, and obviously your fans. Sometimes politics comes into play when you work for others than yourself.”

Cam sites are also big business, and the next logical step in the trickle-down of power is for performers to have their own distribution platforms. Unfortunately, no matter how well-meaning your indie porn project, the “Adult” label makes it most likely you’ll fail. Mainstream payment providers won’t work with adult businesses, and specialist providers take a huge cut of revenue. Major ad networks avoid porn, so the only advertising option is to sign up to an “adult” network, which is probably owned by a large porn company and will fill your site with bouncing-boob gifs and hot milfs “in your area”: exactly the kind of thing you’re trying to fight against. Those who are trying to take on the might of Big Porn need not just to change what we watch, but challenge what we think porn is, too.

The internet has given the porn industry a huge boost – cheaper production and distribution, the potential for more variety, and an influence that it would be ridiculous to ignore. But in our failure properly to analyse the industry, we are accepting a definition of porn that has been handed to us by the dominant players in the market.

Girl on the Net writes one of the UK’s most popular sex blogs: girlonthenet.com

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times