US Congressmen have called for a more strategic approach to targeting black market dark web sites, after the launch of Silk Road 2.0 today.
Senator Tom Carper, chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, issued a statement just hours after the reincarnation of Silk Road.
"This new website – launched barely a month after Federal agents shut down the original Silk Road -- underscores the inescapable reality that technology is dynamic and ever-evolving and that government policy needs to adapt accordingly," said Carper, whose Committee is heading a formal inquiry into virtual currencies.
Carper said that 'whack-a-mole' approaches to dark web marketplaces are not as effective as broader policymaking. "We need to develop thoughtful, nimble and sensible federal policies that protect the public without stifling innovation and economic growth," he said. "Our committee intends to have that conversation - among others - at our hearing this month on virtual currency."
Silk Road 2.0 came online Wednesday, headed by someone calling himself The Dread Pirate Roberts. This is the original name used by Ross Ulbricht, the alleged founder of Silk Road, who was arrested by the FBI.
The site uses a defaced FBI seizure notice on its login screen. This is the same as the notice displayed on Silk Road after it was closed down, except with a modification. It now reads: "This hidden site has risen again."
Straight after logging in, users are directed to a personalized welcome page, which states: "We rise again". The 'profile' page has been updated, now enabling users to select two-factor authentication.
The list of products is largely the same as before, featuring items such as cannabis, ecstasy, forgeries, prescriptions and money, however, there are currently only a few hundred items for sale, compared with the thousands that were on offer on the first Silk Road.
Silk Road 2.0's new founder said that his site was enjoying 1100 connections per second hours after launch. His site is as much about principles as it is about drug sales, he said in a tweet. "Our proceeds will fund more anonymity technology research - you don't need drugs to care about privacy. We are freedom fighters," he claimed.
@the_pouar Our proceeds will fund more anonymity technology research - you don't need drugs to care about privacy. We are freedom fighters.
— Dread Pirate Roberts (@DreadPirateSR) November 6, 2013
There has been some continuity with Silk Road. The forums for the site have been operational since October 7, just days after the previous site was taken down. At least one of the original Silk Road's former moderators is now involved with the new site, according to this Mashable interview with DPR.
The new operator claims to have better security than Ulbricht did, and says that there are measures in place to ensure that people get access to their coins, even if the site is closed. "We have learned hard lessons from the unfortunate events of recent weeks, and the man hours that have gone into this new release are phenomenal," says a message on the site's greeting page.
But he has competition. After Silk Road was taken down in early October, there were several sites offering alternative services to users. Black Market Reloaded and Sheep Market both offer similar services to those wanting to buy illegal goods online. BrainMagic and Drugmarket are openly displaying illegal drugs on their pages, and both are accepting bitcoin payments. The same goes for BitPharma and The People's Drug Store.
There are also web sites specializing in marijuana alone. German has DeDope, while the Netherlands has NL Growers. Ecanna provides weed and related paraphernalia, all for sale in bitcoin. Budster, while still up, has already seen growing pains relating to the processing of escrow orders.
There are also some sites whose future is more in question. Atlantis closed down, Deepbay is not loading, and Silk Road Reloaded has been quiet for three weeks, with no demo yet. And in a sign of how untrustworthy some of these sites can be, another site called Project Black Flag closed after the organizer said that he 'panicked' and stole all of the bitcoins. When that site launched in mid-October, it was labeled Silk Road, and was styled after the original site.
Now, Silk Road 2.0's rollout is nearly complete. According to its timeline, a wiki will go live on Nov 7, while bitcoin deposits and withdrawals will be enabled on Friday Nov 8. Orders may be placed from Saturday Nov 9 onwards.
US lawmakers may be looking for a more strategic approach to take down drug peddling web sites, but not all policymakers agree. Former UN Secretary General UN Kofi Annan, now a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, called for an end to the war on drugs this week.
"Citizens see huge amounts of their taxes spent on harsh policies that are not working," he said in a piece for CNN, arguing that illicit drug trafficking can create opportunities for organized crime, and that the time is overdue for policy reform. "It is time for a smarter approach to drug policy. Putting people's health and safety first is an imperative, not an afterthought."
What do you think of the new site? Is it a con? Will the Feds shut it down soon? Tell us in the comments.
Story co-authored by Emily Spaven and Danny Bradbury