13:58
TEDGlobalLondon

Jamie Bartlett: How the mysterious dark net is going mainstream

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There’s a parallel Internet you may not have run across yet -- accessed by a special browser and home to a freewheeling collection of sites for everything from anonymous activism to illicit activities. Jamie Bartlett reports from the dark net.

- Social media analyst
In his book "The Dark Net," Jamie Bartlett investigates Internet subcultures, both legal and illegal. Full bio

If you want to buy high-quality,
low-price cocaine,
00:12
there really is only one place to go,
00:18
and that is the dark net
anonymous markets.
00:21
Now, you can't get to these sites
00:25
with a normal browser --
Chrome or Firefox --
00:27
because they're on this
hidden part of the Internet,
00:31
known as Tor hidden services,
00:34
where URLs are a string of meaningless
numbers and letters that end in .onion,
00:37
and which you access
with a special browser
00:41
called the Tor browser.
00:44
Now, the Tor browser was originally
a U.S. Naval intelligence project.
00:46
It then became open source,
00:51
and it allows anybody to browse the net
00:53
without giving away their location.
00:55
And it does this
by encrypting your IP address
00:58
and then routing it via several
other computers around the world
01:02
that use the same software.
01:06
You can use it on the normal Internet,
01:09
but it's also your key to the dark net.
01:11
And because of this fiendishly
clever encryption system,
01:16
the 20 or 30 -- we don't know exactly --
thousand sites that operate there
01:19
are incredibly difficult to shut down.
01:24
It is a censorship-free world
visited by anonymous users.
01:28
Little wonder, then,
that it's a natural place to go
01:35
for anybody with something to hide,
01:39
and that something, of course,
need not be illegal.
01:41
On the dark net, you will find
01:46
whistle-blower sites, The New Yorker.
01:48
You will find political activism blogs.
01:51
You will find libraries of pirated books.
01:53
But you'll also find the drugs markets,
01:56
illegal pornography,
commercial hacking services,
02:00
and much more besides.
02:04
Now, the dark net is one of the most
interesting, exciting places
02:06
anywhere on the net.
02:12
And the reason is, because
although innovation, of course,
02:13
takes place in big businesses,
02:17
takes place in world-class universities,
02:19
it also takes place in the fringes,
02:22
because those on the fringes --
the pariahs, the outcasts --
02:24
they're often the most creative,
because they have to be.
02:29
In this part of the Internet,
02:33
you will not find a single lolcat,
02:36
a single pop-up advert anywhere.
02:38
And that's one of the reasons why I think
02:41
many of you here will be
on the dark net fairly soon.
02:43
(Laughter)
02:47
Not that I'm suggesting
anyone in this audience would use it
02:50
to go and procure high-quality narcotics.
02:53
But let's say for a moment that you were.
02:56
(Laughter)
02:58
Bear with me.
03:00
The first thing you will notice
on signing up to one of these sites
03:02
is how familiar it looks.
03:07
Every single product --
03:10
thousands of products --
03:13
has a glossy, high-res image,
03:15
a detailed product description, a price.
03:19
There's a "Proceed to checkout" icon.
03:22
There is even, most beautifully of all,
03:25
a "Report this item" button.
03:28
(Laughter)
03:30
Incredible.
03:33
You browse through the site,
you make your choice,
03:35
you pay with the crypto-currency bitcoin,
03:37
you enter an address --
preferably not your home address --
03:40
and you wait for your product
to arrive in the post,
03:43
which it nearly always does.
03:45
And the reason it does
is not because of the clever encryption.
03:49
That's important.
03:53
Something far simpler than that.
03:54
It's the user reviews.
03:58
(Laughter)
03:59
You see, every single vendor
on these sites
04:01
uses a pseudonym, naturally enough,
04:05
but they keep the same pseudonym
to build up a reputation.
04:07
And because it's easy for the buyer
to change allegiance whenever they want,
04:11
the only way of trusting a vendor
04:16
is if they have a good history
of positive feedback
04:21
from other users of the site.
04:24
And this introduction
of competition and choice
04:27
does exactly what
the economists would predict.
04:31
Prices tend to go down,
product quality tends to go up,
04:37
and the vendors are attentive,
04:42
they're polite, they're consumer-centric,
04:44
offering you all manner
of special deals, one-offs,
04:46
buy-one-get-one-frees, free delivery,
04:51
to keep you happy.
04:54
I spoke to Drugsheaven.
04:56
Drugsheaven was offering
excellent and consistent marijuana
04:59
at a reasonable price.
05:05
He had a very generous refund policy,
05:08
detailed T's and C's,
05:11
and good shipping times.
05:13
"Dear Drugsheaven," I wrote,
05:15
via the internal emailing system
that's also encrypted, of course.
05:17
"I'm new here. Do you mind
if I buy just one gram of marijuana?"
05:22
A couple of hours later, I get a reply.
05:27
They always reply.
05:29
"Hi there, thanks for your email.
05:31
Starting small is a wise thing to do.
I would, too, if I were you."
05:34
(Laughter)
05:39
"So no problem if you'd like to start
with just one gram.
05:41
I do hope we can do business together.
05:44
Best wishes, Drugsheaven."
05:46
(Laughter)
05:48
I don't know why he had a posh
English accent, but I assume he did.
05:50
Now, this kind
of consumer-centric attitude
05:56
is the reason why, when I reviewed
120,000 pieces of feedback
06:00
that had been left on one of these sites
over a three-month period,
06:06
95 percent of them were five out of five.
06:10
The customer, you see, is king.
06:14
But what does that mean?
06:17
Well, on the one hand,
06:19
that means there are more drugs,
more available, more easily,
06:20
to more people.
06:25
And by my reckoning,
that is not a good thing.
06:26
But, on the other hand,
if you are going to take drugs,
06:30
you have a reasonably good way
06:34
of guaranteeing a certain level
of purity and quality,
06:37
which is incredibly important
if you're taking drugs.
06:42
And you can do so
from the comfort of your own home,
06:45
without the risks associated
with buying on the streets.
06:48
Now, as I said,
06:53
you've got to be creative and innovative
to survive in this marketplace.
06:55
And the 20 or so sites
that are currently in operation --
07:00
by the way, they don't always work,
they're not always perfect;
07:03
the site that I showed you
was shut down 18 months ago,
07:07
but not before it had turned
over a billion dollars' worth of trade.
07:09
But these markets,
07:17
because of the difficult conditions
in which they are operating,
07:18
the inhospitable conditions,
07:21
are always innovating, always
thinking of ways of getting smarter,
07:23
more decentralized, harder to censor,
07:26
and more customer-friendly.
07:28
Let's take the payment system.
07:32
You don't pay with your credit card,
07:34
of course -- that would lead
directly back to you.
07:36
So you use the crypto-currency bitcoin,
07:38
which is easily exchanged
for real-world currencies
07:40
and gives quite a high degree
of anonymity to its users.
07:45
But at the beginning of these sites,
people noticed a flaw.
07:49
Some of the unscrupulous dealers
were running away with peoples' bitcoin
07:52
before they'd mailed the drugs out.
07:56
The community came up with a solution,
called multi-signature escrow payments.
07:59
So on purchasing my item,
08:07
I would send my bitcoin
08:10
to a neutral, secure third digital wallet.
08:13
The vendor, who would see
that I'd sent it,
08:18
would be confident that they
could then send the product to me,
08:21
and then when I received it,
08:24
at least two of the three people
engaged in the transaction --
08:25
vendor, buyer, site administrator --
08:28
would have to sign the transaction off
08:31
with a unique digital signature,
08:33
and then the money would be transferred.
08:35
Brilliant!
08:38
Elegant.
08:39
It works.
08:40
But then they realized there was
a problem with bitcoin,
08:42
because every bitcoin transaction
08:45
is actually recorded publicly
in a public ledger.
08:47
So if you're clever, you can try
and work out who's behind them.
08:49
So they came up with a tumbling service.
08:53
Hundreds of people send
their bitcoin into one address,
08:56
they're tumbled and jumbled up,
08:59
and then the right amount
is sent on to the right recipients,
09:01
but they're different bitcoins:
09:05
micro-laundering systems.
09:07
(Laughter)
09:09
It's incredible.
09:10
Interested in what drugs are trending
right now on the dark net markets?
09:11
Check Grams, the search engine.
09:17
You can even buy some advertising space.
09:19
(Laughter)
09:21
Are you an ethical consumer worried
about what the drugs industry is doing?
09:23
Yeah.
09:29
One vendor will offer you
fair trade organic cocaine.
09:30
(Laughter)
09:34
That's not being sourced
from Colombian druglords,
09:35
but Guatemalan farmers.
09:38
They even promised to reinvest
20 percent of any profits
09:39
into local education programs.
09:43
(Laughter)
09:45
There's even a mystery shopper.
09:46
Now, whatever you think
about the morality of these sites --
09:48
and I submit that it's not
actually an easy question --
09:52
the creation of functioning,
competitive, anonymous markets,
09:55
where nobody knows who anybody else is,
10:01
constantly at risk of being shut down
by the authorities,
10:03
is a staggering achievement,
10:06
a phenomenal achievement.
10:09
And it's that kind of innovation
10:12
that's why those on the fringes
10:16
are often the harbingers
of what is to come.
10:18
It's easy to forget
10:22
that because of its short life,
10:24
the Internet has actually
changed many times
10:26
over the last 30 years or so.
10:30
It started in the '70s
as a military project,
10:31
morphed in the 1980s
to an academic network,
10:34
co-opted by commercial
companies in the '90s,
10:38
and then invaded by all of us
via social media in the noughties,
10:41
but I think it's going to change again.
10:44
And I think things
like the dark net markets --
10:47
creative, secure, difficult to censor --
10:49
I think that's the future.
10:53
And the reason it's the future
10:56
is because we're all worried
about our privacy.
10:58
Surveys consistently show
concerns about privacy.
11:01
The more time we spend online,
the more we worry about them,
11:04
and those surveys show
our worries are growing.
11:08
We're worried about
what happens to our data.
11:10
We're worried about
who might be watching us.
11:12
Since the revelations from Edward Snowden,
11:15
there's been a huge increase
in the number of people
11:17
using various privacy-enhancing tools.
11:20
There are now between two
and three million daily users
11:23
of the Tor browser,
11:26
the majority of which use
is perfectly legitimate,
11:27
sometimes even mundane.
11:33
And there are hundreds of activists
around the world
11:35
working on techniques and tools
to keep you private online --
11:38
default encrypted messaging services.
11:45
Ethereum, which is a project
which tries to link up
11:47
the connected but unused hard drives
of millions of computers around the world,
11:51
to create a sort of distributed Internet
that no one really controls.
11:56
Now, we've had distributed
computing before, of course.
12:00
We use it for everything from Skype
to the search for extraterrestrial life.
12:03
But you add distributed computing
and powerful encryption --
12:07
that's very, very hard
to censor and control.
12:12
Another called MaidSafe
works on similar principles.
12:16
Another called Twister,
and so on and so on.
12:19
And here's the thing --
12:23
the more of us join,
12:25
the more interesting those sites become,
12:26
and then the more of us join, and so on.
12:29
And I think that's what's going to happen.
12:32
In fact, it's already happening.
12:34
The dark net is no longer
a den for dealers
12:36
and a hideout for whistle-blowers.
12:40
It's already going mainstream.
12:42
Just recently, the musician Aphex Twin
released his album as a dark net site.
12:45
Facebook has started a dark net site.
12:52
A group of London architects
have opened a dark net site
12:56
for people worried
about regeneration projects.
12:59
Yes, the dark net is going mainstream,
13:02
and I predict that fairly soon,
every social media company,
13:05
every major news outlet,
13:09
and therefore most of you
in this audience,
13:10
will be using the dark net, too.
13:13
So the Internet is about to get
more interesting,
13:16
more exciting, more innovative,
13:19
more terrible,
13:22
more destructive.
13:24
That's good news
if you care about liberty.
13:27
It's good news if you care about freedom.
13:29
It's good news if you care
about democracy.
13:31
It's also good news
13:33
if you want to browse
for illegal pornography
13:34
and if you want to buy and sell drugs
13:37
with impunity.
13:39
Neither entirely dark, nor entirely light.
13:41
It's not one side or the other
that's going to win out, but both.
13:45
Thank you very much, indeed.
13:50
(Applause)
13:52

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About the Speaker:

Jamie Bartlett - Social media analyst
In his book "The Dark Net," Jamie Bartlett investigates Internet subcultures, both legal and illegal.

Why you should listen

As the director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos, a leading UK think tank, Jamie Bartlett is currently involved in projects on crypto-currencies, surveillance and counter-surveillance methods and ISIS’s use of social media for propaganda and recruitment. He is a vocal columnist and commentator and the author of The Dark Net, a book on legal and illegal internet subcultures. Previously, he conducted field research in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

More profile about the speaker
Jamie Bartlett | Speaker | TED.com