Order without law? How the hidden Internet learned about politics the hard way

Henry Farrell has a truly fantastic article about the hidden internet and anonymous communication (via Tor, for instance) and how libertarian and anarchist dreams collide with politics:

Tor’s anonymity helps criminals by making it harder for the state to identify and detain them. Yet this has an ironic side-effect: it also makes it harder for them to trust each other, because they typically can’t be sure who their interlocutors are. To make money in hidden markets, you need people to trust you, so that they will buy from you and sell to you. Having accomplished this first manoeuvre, the truly successful entrepreneurs go one step further. They become middlemen of trust, guaranteeing relations between others and taking a cut from the proceeds.

To this end, entrepreneurs have found it necessary to create and maintain communities, making rules, enforcing them, punishing rule-breakers, and turning towards violence when all else fails. They have, in effect, built petty versions of the very governments they are fleeing. As the US sociologist Charles Tilly argued, the modern state began as a protection racket, offering its subjects protection against outsiders and each other. The same logic is playing out today on the hidden internet, as would-be petty barons and pirate kings fight to tax and police their subjects while defending themselves against hostile incursions.

The rise and fall of Texan Ross Ulbricht, founder of the drug trading site Silk Road, is a highlight:

Initially, Ulbricht saw himself as bringing ‘order and civility’ to a black market where others, like him, were committed to libertarian ideals. Yet order in actual markets depends on threats of violence – whether the penalties embedded in the laws of the state, or the bloody interventions of mob bosses. In the absence of such arrangements, predators move in. The Silk Road’s business model worked only if genuinely ruthless people didn’t notice its critical vulnerabilities. As soon as it began to attract attention – and earn enormous amounts of money – its course was set.

I am assigning this article for my new Order & Violence seminar this fall.

22 thoughts on “Order without law? How the hidden Internet learned about politics the hard way

  1. Sounds similar to some of the arguments made by Diego Gambetta in
    “Codes of the Underworld”