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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Fark.com’s censorship story is a striking insight into Google’s unchecked power

The founder of the community-driven website claims its advertising revenue was cut off for five weeks.

When Microsoft launched its new search engine Bing in 2009, it wasted no time in trying to get the word out. By striking a deal with the producers of the American teen drama Gossip Girl, it made a range of beautiful characters utter the words “Bing it!” in a way that fell clumsily on the audience’s ears. By the early Noughties, “search it” had already been universally replaced by the words “Google it”, a phrase that had become so ubiquitous that anything else sounded odd.

A screenshot from Gossip Girl, via ildarabbit.wordpress.com

Like Hoover and Tupperware before it, Google’s brand name has now become a generic term.

Yet only recently have concerns about Google’s pervasiveness received mainstream attention. Last month, The Observer ran a story about Google’s auto-fill pulling up the suggested question of “Are Jews evil?” and giving hate speech prominence in the first page of search results. Within a day, Google had altered the autocomplete results.

Though the company’s response may seem promising, it is important to remember that Google isn’t just a search engine (Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has too many subdivisions to mention). Google AdSense is an online advertising service that allows many websites to profit from hosting advertisements on its pages, including the New Statesman itself. Yesterday, Drew Curtis, the founder of the internet news aggregator Fark.com, shared a story about his experiences with the service.

Under the headline “Google farked us over”, Curtis wrote:

“This past October we suffered a huge financial hit because Google mistakenly identified an image that was posted in our comments section over half a decade ago as an underage adult image – which is a felony by the way. Our ads were turned off for almost five weeks – completely and totally their mistake – and they refuse to make it right.”

The image was of a fully-clothed actress who was an adult at the time, yet Curtis claims Google flagged it because of “a small pedo bear logo” – a meme used to mock paedophiles online. More troubling than Google’s decision, however, is the difficulty that Curtis had contacting the company and resolving the issue, a process which he claims took five weeks. He wrote:

“During this five week period where our ads were shut off, every single interaction with Google Policy took between one to five days. One example: Google Policy told us they shut our ads off due to an image. Without telling us where it was. When I immediately responded and asked them where it was, the response took three more days.”

Curtis claims that other sites have had these issues but are too afraid of Google to speak out publicly. A Google spokesperson says: "We constantly review publishers for compliance with our AdSense policies and take action in the event of violations. If publishers want to appeal or learn more about actions taken with respect to their account, they can find information at the help centre here.”

Fark.com has lost revenue because of Google’s decision, according to Curtis, who sent out a plea for new subscribers to help it “get back on track”. It is easy to see how a smaller website could have been ruined in a similar scenario.


The offending image, via Fark

Google’s decision was not sinister, and it is obviously important that it tackles things that violate its policies. The lack of transparency around such decisions, and the difficulty getting in touch with Google, are troubling, however, as much of the media relies on the AdSense service to exist.

Even if Google doesn’t actively abuse this power, it is disturbing that it has the means by which to strangle any online publication, and worrying that smaller organisations can have problems getting in contact with it to solve any issues. In light of the recent news about Google's search results, the picture painted becomes more even troubling.

Update, 13/01/17:

Another Google spokesperson got in touch to provide the following statement: “We have an existing set of publisher policies that govern where Google ads may be placed in order to protect users from harmful, misleading or inappropriate content.  We enforce these policies vigorously, and taking action may include suspending ads on their site. Publishers can appeal these actions.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.