Feds Play Whack-A-Mole On The Deep Web

Last Thursday, the FBI announced that it had shut down the second incarnation of the infamous black market site Silk Road and arrested its founder:

Investigators claim that Blake Benthall, 26, co-created Silk Road 2.0 in November 2013 after the man accused of founding the original Silk Road — Ross Ulbricht, known as “Dread Pirate Roberts” — was arrested and had his site shut down the month earlier. Operating under the name “Defcon,” the officials allege, Benthall owned and operated “one of the most extensive, sophisticated, and widely used criminal marketplaces on the Internet today.” The marketplace, which shielded its some 150,000 active users with Tor technology and appears to have been seized by federal authorities, was apparently generating sales of about $8 million each month, primarily in illicit drugs.

Two smaller “Darknet” sites were reportedly also seized. Chris Ingraham contends that these shutdowns actually make the drug market more dangerous, and in any case, as soon as one site goes down, another goes up:

I’ll note that there’s a strong argument to be made that the darknet economy makes the world a safer place overall. By taking drug transactions off the street and putting them online, you eliminate a significant link in the chain of violence between drug suppliers and end users. Drugs purchased online are typically less adulterated with dangerous contaminants than street drugs are, and a system of reviews rewards sellers who provide high-quality product. … Regardless of how many of these sites the FBI has seized today, it’s a near certainty that dozens more will spring up to take their place tomorrow.

In a follow-up, he adds that the FBI is returning to old-school drug war tactics that we know don’t work:

In essence, this is nothing more than a promise of an endless arms race between the FBI and Darknet administrators. It’s understandable that the FBI is going to pursue to biggest facilitators of drug sales — which are still illegal at the federal level — but it’ stills a throwback to the darkest days of the drug war, when law enforcement’s relentless focus on “supply reduction,”  shutting down drug sellers and manufacturers, fueled a surge in crime and had, studies showed, no impact on overall drug use trends.

Much of the rhetoric coming out of the federal government recently, on the other hand, has been focused on the flip side of that coin: demand reduction, including drug use prevention and treatment measures. These measures largely embrace the notion that drug use is a fact of modern life, and that the best way to address it is to focus on eliminating the harms associated with it.