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29 October 2013updated 27 Sep 2015 5:59am

London gets a Bitcoin exchange and the post-Silk Road black market wobbles on

One of the drug marketplaces set up to replace Silk Road closed, with its owner stealing users' money.

By Ian Steadman

Two contrasting stories about the state of Bitcoin today. The first concerns the ongoing black market for drugs, which is undergoing a lot of churn post-Silk Road. New exchanges are popping up, vendors are dispersing onto them, and customers – or, at least, those brave enough to think that law enforcement agencies aren’t also on top of all this – are trying to figure out who to trust.

It’s all about trust on these sites. I’ve written before about how Silk Road’s success was in part down to its active culture of customer reviews, alerting people to bad quality merchandise and pointing people towards trustworthy vendors. That kind of culture takes a long time to build up, as those searching for a Silk Road replacement are discovering.

This morning, one of those sites – Black Flag – went down, with its owner apparently absconding with its users’ money. Calling themselves “Metta Dread Pirate Roberts” (Dread Pirate Roberts was the name Silk Road’s owner used, allegedly the now-in-custody Ross Ullbricht), they posted the following message on the site’s forum:

Well mates, I am saddened to say goodbye. When I created P: BF [Project: Black Flag], my intent was pure and I wanted to help the community. Several days ago I begin implementing code changes to freeze funds and dump them to myself. I was unable to cope with the stress and constant demand, so I panicked. I am sorry for my actions, but with the funds I gathered from the site, I will be able to keep myself from being homeless for the next several months. I will always remember those that made this possible.

The servers will shortly be turned off. Please make migrate to the new Silk Road forums.

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Keyboard DPK and Ganja are not me. They did not know this happened, and were kept in the dark just like everyone else. Please do not hold my actions against them.

I have let a lot of people down, including myself. I put hundreds of hours into this site and forum, and never wanted to see it end up this way.
As of now, I will no longer be using the name MettaDPR, nor will I be signing into the forums or site. The forum servers will be going down in week or so; the market will be going down within the next few days.

Abandon ship.

-MettaDPR

We have no idea how many bitcoins MettaDPR has taken with them – the site wasn’t up for long, and is nowhere near one of the bigger Silk Road alternatives – but it shows the difficulties facing the drug black market community. Someone could set up a site for a while, wait for people to trust their money to it, and then skip town.

You can’t regulate against that because, y’know, the drugs thing. The impossibility of retreiving stolen bitcoins is built into the system, so the only thing you can do is try and stop thefts in the first place. And that leads us to the second bit of interesting Bitcoin news today, which is that London is (finally) getting what looks to be a serious, well-backed exchange – Coinfloor.

Considering its position as a world financial centre it is surprising that it took so long for something like Coinfloor to emerge, but then UK government’s lack of urgency in working out if it wants to regulate Bitcoin trading has kind of forced its hand. As Coindesk reports:

Coinfloor, which is backed for an undisclosed sum by VC firm Passion Capital, is the first firm to trade bitcoins for GBP on an order book for at least a year. There are scant other exchanges in the UK trading bitcoins for GBP. Bittylicious offers the chance to buy bitcoins for sterling, for example, although this appears to be a more rudimentary site, and doesn’t have the charting facilities offered by Coinfloor. London-based Intersango ran an order book and allowed GBP trades, although that site inherited hacked and now-defunct virtual currency exchange Bitcoinica. It was sued by customers, and is no longer taking registrations.

Getting backing like that means it feels it doesn’t have to wait for the Financial Services Authority to sort out what its policy towards Bitcoin will be. Talks have happened, but nothing concrete has emerged.

However, Coinfloor represents the other side of the Bitcoin world to the Black Flag closure – its increasing legitimacy, both as a payment method and as a commodity. Despite a still-volatile price – over the last couple of weeks there was an unexpected surge and ebb that is believed to have been caused by a Chinese exchange – the wobbles in the underground Bitcoin market are increasingly separated from the above-ground one, lending it legitimacy it needs to survive.