Earlier this week, the FBI shut down the online drug marketplace The Silk Road, arrested its alleged mastermind (whose online handle was "the Dread Pirate Roberts" from The Princess Bride) in San Francisco, and seized millions of dollars worth of Bitcoins.
This comes just a few months after a lengthy—and swaggering—interview the pirate gave to a Forbes reporter. (One wonders how closely the reporter was watched by the FBI and whether he left any digital breadcrumbs that helped agents track the suspect down.)
So: The FBI has shut down what was basically an open-air drug market—and an ongoing embarrassment for them—used by people who browse the internet on (easily downloaded and installed) Tor technology. Good for them. But at what cost? What harms has the FBI introduced by shutting down one of world's safer, cleaner, better-regulated drug markets? (Not to say it was ideal—the FBI indicates that it also trafficked in some predatory hacking trades and at least threats of murder-for-hire.)
That question would have been practically unaskable in most mainstream publications ten years ago. But Conor Friedersdorf over at the Atlantic is among the journalists who is asking and answering. This is the center of his argument:
It's easy to see why computer-savvy buyers preferred getting their drug of choice on The Silk Road. The purchase could be made without ever identifying oneself to a drug dealer (or undercover cop)... User reviews meant the product was a known quantity. And apparently the drugs were high quality — the FBI said it made numerous purchases on The Silk Road, and that “samples of these purchases have been laboratory tested and have typically shown high purity levels.”
Elsewhere, the FBI states that:
“Silk Road has been used by several thousand drug dealers and other unlawful vendors to distribute hundreds of kilograms of illegal drugs..."
"Based on the postal markings on the packages in which the drugs arrived, these purchases appear to have been filled by vendors located in over ten different countries...”
“The narcotics sold on the site tend to be sold in individual-use quantities...”
Think of what that means...
The FBI summed up its case against The Silk Road by writing that “the site has sought to make conducting illegal transactions on the Internet as easy and frictionless as shopping online at mainstream e-commerce websites.” Insofar as it trafficked in violence-for-hire and hacked bank accounts, that was a bad thing — society has an interest in as much friction as possible in the market for hit men! But compared to the epidemic violence that has characterized the drug trade for the entirety of the War on Drugs, and that shows no signs of abating in the foreseeable future, a frictionless drug trade starts to seem like a relative utopia.
The “friction” is often dead teenagers on urban streets.
It's impossible to guess how many more people along drug-supply chains might get hurt because the FBI shut down the closest thing the world had to a "frictionless" drug market. But you can safely bet the number is higher than zero—and an increasing number of sensible, mainstream Americans are beginning to see the problem for what it is. "How do we keep drugs away from our children?" is one part of the question. "What's the best way to reduce systemic, market-driven violence up and down the hemisphere?" is a bigger one.