Goodbye to the real trip advisor: Silk Road's top LSD review team just retired

A group calling themselves The Avengers were a bit like the Yelp of buying acid online.

Drug users are just like everyone else - they want to know they’re going to get value for money. To that end, it was intriguing to watch the spontaneous growth of product review forums and sites in parallel to Silk Road’s rise.

Most of the reviews took the form of something like Yelp, where customers would review what they’d bought and discuss with other users whether products that were meant to be the same actually had the same effects. Sites like Pill Reports explicitly say they’re concerned with harm reduction, cataloguing the different ecstasy pills found “in the wild”, and giving users a chance to warn each other before they make a potentially life-ruining mistake.

When it came to LSD, a group calling themselves The Avengers took it upon themselves to act almost like restaurant critics, compiling detailed reports about the trustworthiness of Silk Road vendors and the accuracy of their product descriptions. Here’s Adrianne Jeffries at the Verge:

The Avengers were looking for sellers who stole customers’ money or tried to pawn blank pieces of paper. More often, however, they were looking to root out research chemicals that were being sold as acid. Those include DOx compounds (synthetic amphetamines), the 25x-NBOMe or 25x family (synthetic psychedelics that have only been around for the past few years), and ergoloid (a compound invented by the creator of LSD and used to treat dementia). These chemicals aren’t more dangerous than acid; they just have slightly different effects. They are also newer, so their cumulative effects are not well understood.

By the time Silk Road shut down, The Avengers had reviewed 60 vendors, rating them on factors like packaging quality, shipping time, and price. For example, “3JANE” was said to have “extreme Ninja-Spy stealth shipping” for their “quality LSD with appropriate dosages advertised”.

They’ve announced their retirement now that Silk Road is gone, but of course with the nature of the deep web there’s no way of verifying that. We’ve no idea how many people were in The Avengers or their location. We can’t even be sure that they haven’t just moved on to Black Market Reloaded or Sheep Marketplace - the two sites that have gained popularity since Silk Road went down - under different names.

Compared to The Avengers, and Silk Road's forums, sites like Erowid - which has been live since 1995 - offer educational materials about psychadelic materials in a way that is very much rooted in a 1960s-style subculture. Drugs get tied into a New Age aesthetic that, while undoubtedly useful for many, probably also puts off those who aren't as interested in spirituality. Effectively, this older peer-review drug culture was consumed by the more recent web reviews culture we see on sites like Yelp, and people acted like they were buying any other good online.

It's also interesting to see that drugs users managed to spontaneously create a harm reduction system that's a lot more sophisticated than anything you'll see condoned by the authorities in the UK. Right now there's a bad batch of ecstasy going around in the northwest of England, which killed one man at the Warehouse Project in Manchester and hospitalised 15 others. In response, the clubnight organisers have started testing drugs seized inside the venue and broadcasting the results to try and warn others.

Good, but it does nothing to help those who have already taken the drugs before trying to get in, nor for those buying bags of unmarked white powder off dealers inside the venue. This isn't to say that a bunch of people on a web forum are the perfect authority - it would be unwise at best to medical opinions from strangers online rather than a qualified doctor - but it compares favourably to having to buy drugs with a completely unknown history from dealers in the street.

LSD blotters seized by French customs agents in 2008. (Photo: Getty)

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

Flickr: B.S.Wise/YouTube
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Extremist ads and LGBT videos: do we want YouTube to be a censor, or not?

Is the video-sharing platform a morally irresponsible slacker for putting ads next to extremist content - or an evil, tyrannical censor for restricting access to LGBT videos?

YouTube is having a bad week. The Google-owned video-sharing platform has hit the headlines twice over complaints that it 1) is not censoring things enough, and 2) is censoring things too much.

On the one hand, big brands including Marks & Spencer, HSBC, and RBS have suspended their advertisements from the site after a Times investigation found ads from leading companies – and even the UK government – were shown alongside extremist videos. On the other, YouTubers are tweeting #YouTubeIsOverParty after it emerged that YouTube’s “restricted mode” (an opt-in setting that filters out “potentially objectionable content”) removes content with LGBT themes.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a social media giant be criticised for being a lax, morally irresponsible slacker and an evil, tyrannical censor and in the same week. Last month, Facebook were criticised for both failing to remove a group called “hot xxxx schoolgirls” and for removing a nude oil painting by an acclaimed artist.

That is not to say these things are equivalent. Quite obviously child abuse imagery is more troubling than a nude oil painting, and videos entitled “Jewish People Admit Organising White Genocide” are endlessly more problematic than those called “GAY flag and me petting my cat” (a highly important piece of content). I am not trying to claim that ~everything is relative~ and ~everyone deserves a voice~. Content that breaks the law must be removed and LGBT content must not. Yet these conflicting stories highlight the same underlying problem: it is a very bad idea to trust a large multibillion pound company to be the arbiter of what is or isn’t acceptable.

This isn’t because YouTube have some strange agenda where it can’t get enough of extremists and hate the LGBT community. In reality, the company’s “restricted mode” also affects Paul Joseph Watson, a controversial YouTuber whose pro-Trump conspiracy theory content includes videos titled “Islam is NOT a Religion of Peace” and “A Vote For Hillary is a Vote For World War 3”, as well as an interview entitled “Chuck Johnson: Muslim Migrants Will Cause Collapse of Europe”. The issue is that if YouTube did have this agenda, it would have complete control over what it wanted the world to see – and not only are we are willingly handing them this power, we are begging them to use it.

Moral panics are the most common justification for extreme censorship and surveillance methods. “Catching terrorists” and “stopping child abusers” are two of the greatest arguments for the dystopian surveillance measures in Theresa May’s Investigatory Powers Act and Digital Economy Bill. Yet in reality, last month the FBI let a child pornographer go free because they didn’t want to tell a court the surveillance methods they used to catch him. This begs the question: what is the surveillance really for? The same is true of censorship. When we insist that YouTube stop this and that, we are asking it to take complete control – why do we trust that this will reflect our own moral sensibilities? Why do we think it won't use this for its own benefit?

Obviously extremist content needs to be removed from YouTube, but why should YouTube be the one to do it? If a book publisher released A Very Racist Book For Racists, we wouldn’t trust them to pull it off the shelves themselves. We have laws (such as the Racial and Religious Hatred Act) that ban hate speech, and we have law enforcement bodies to impose them. On the whole, we don’t trust giant commercial companies to rule over what it is and isn’t acceptable to say, because oh, hello, yes, dystopia.

In the past, public speech was made up of hundreds of book publishers, TV stations, film-makers, and pamphleteers, and no one person or company had the power to censor everything. A book that didn’t fly at one publisher could go to another, and a documentary that the BBC didn’t like could find a home on Channel 4. Why are we happy for essentially two companies – Facebook and Google – to take this power? Why are we demanding that they use it? Why are we giving them justification to use it more, and more, and more?

In response to last week’s criticism about extremist videos on the YouTube, Google UK managing director Ronan Harris said that in 2016 Google removed nearly 2 billion ads, banned over 100,000 publishers, and prevented ads from showing on over 300 million YouTube videos. We are supposed to consider this a good thing. Why? We don't know what these adverts were for. We don't know if they were actually offensive. We don't know why they were banned. 

As it happens, YouTube has responded well to the criticism. In a statement yesterday, Google's EMEA President, Matt Brittin, apologised to advertisers and promised improvements, and in a blog this morning, Google said it is already "ramping up changes". A YouTube spokesperson also tweeted that the platform is "looking into" concerns about LGBT content being restricted. But people want more. The Guardian reported that Brittin declined three times to answer whether Google would go beyond allowing users to flag offensive material. Setting aside Brexit, wouldn't you rather it was up to us as a collective to flag offensive content and come together to make these decisions? Why is it preferable that one company takes a job that was previously trusted to the government? 

Editor’s Note, 22 March: This article has been updated to clarify Paul Joseph Watson’s YouTube content.

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