So, I’ve finally taken a good look around the so-called Dark Net. You know, that scary place full of drug-dealers, terrorists, child-pornographers, and, oddly enough, polite customer service representatives?

The verdict?

Something about it reminded me of the good ol’ days. Browsing around a slice of the Internet lacking the same logistics and support of the current WWW feels a hell of a lot like the web did back in the reign of Netscape, HTML 2.0, squeaking modems. There’s a certain nostalgia in not being able to find what you want, instantly. Having to sift around nerd-generated UI no-one with any kind of design eye has ever been anywhere near.

I didn’t find kiddie-porn and I didn’t find guns, and to be honest, I didn’t attempt to locate either. As secure and anonymous as the place is meant to be, I don’t trust that completely, nor have any desire to go near that level of death and torment in the name of satisfying a curiosity.

Drugs, on the other hand, I did find. And cheap. And fake passports. And all those dodgy ebooks on how to make bombs out of household chemicals (another twang of 90s nostalgia there – that shit used to be all you’d ever find in ebook directories on the BBS archives of my pre-internet connectivity).

It’s the drug sales that I found the most intriguing. You’ve probably heard of Silk Road as much as the next guy. Some of you may have even been in and seen it, or hell, even been customers. You’ve probably even heard it was shut down. It was, and the guy’s still in court about it, but that hasn’t stopped Silk Road 2.0 (or 3.0, or 6.0, or whatever I was seeing) from picking up where that first site abruptly left off.

I have to say, I was impressed. Or awed. Or something. I don’t know what I was expecting, but what exists there exceeded it.

In the course of the journalistic exploration that was, I chanced upon a conversation with someone who had actually bought a small amount of drugs off the first (pre-arrest, pre-shutdown) version of the site over 12 months ago. He had nothing bad to say about the experience, didn’t actually try much of said delivery, having merely bought some in the name of science. He paid via Bitcoin, the drugs showed up in a rather slick, well-disguised package a couple of days later. The quality was everything it’d been advertised as, very much in keeping with the star-rating several thousand others had given that particular vendor.

The drugs arrived in a pack disguised as originating from Amazon – a factor which seems to flow through the entire front-end of the shopping experience. You’ve got your categories. You’ve got your products listed, so many per page, clickable through to the next page and the next page. You’ve got your ‘sort by highest rated’ or ‘trending’. You’ve got easily-viewed reviews and ratings for each and every seller, and with it a good indicator that you can trust that – for their part – you’re going to get what you paid for. The perfect online shopping experience, as perfected by the original online book-selling behemoth itself.

The problem only comes when you have to keep reminding yourself that all of this is just so illegal, I’m not even certain I’m not risking legal trouble by admitting I’d viewed the site. (For the record – I have not, did not, and will not be making any purchases – I looked around the site both to satisfy a curiosity after seeing so many articles on Silk Road, and for purposes of researching this post… nothing more.) If you understand how to convert cash into Bitcoin in an anonymous way (which, from a cursory glance around Reddit, is dead easy) and have read enough to know how to install Tor and procure Silk Road’s scrambled-looking address, then the only weakness in the system would appear to be the exposure you risk by giving the drugs a delivery address…. and being the one to pick them up.

You can understand why authorities want to shut this place right down – it does seem to be all a little too easy once you know what you’re doing. Adding to that, the variety and quality of the types of drugs / chemicals and extracts available far outweigh the level of consumer choice you’re given in the traditional meet up with a regular street-dealer, even the good ones. Regardless of how long you’ve known a dealer, or if they’re your old friend, or whatever, you’re rarely given access to the level of choice the Silk Road stuff has right there, at prices far lower than what I understand to be the current street value of, well, at least here in the UK. Definitely substantially lower for items like cocaine for overpriced drug markets like the Australian one.

If Silk Road really is as anonymous as it claims to be capable of being, if the authorities really can’t catch a lot of the people who are apparently using the site to have a-class drugs sent to them in the mail, then it feels like a matter of time before this stuff gets well out of control, to the levels of things like software / film / media piracy. Like, hardly anyone is all that concerned that they’re going to get busted downloading an MP3 these days. Silk Road feels a bit like music piracy did ten years ago – there’s still something a little dangerous about it, but you get the feeling that as more people start using it, as the technology back-end improves, the less likely it is that you’re going to get caught out.

It’s an odd thing, really. On the one hand, I kinda like the spirit behind it. There’s a sense of ethics to the place – a code. Yes, the drugs are illegal, but the vibe of the site accepts that there’s a reality to ongoing drug-use being a thing that exists regardless of that, and is catering to its audience. What it does do is draws a line at things it deems immoral – there ain’t no sex-slaves available there. No kid pics. No guns. No grenades. Yes, some money-laundering information / services / accounts (BAD!) and some fake ID stuff (also BAD!) but their code of honour seems to stop at the point at which a product could be used by a customer to hurt somebody other than themselves. It’s not much of an ethical code by legal standards, but it’s still a code. They’ve got limits. They draw a line.

On the other hand, I can’t help feeling like it might take something away from the drug experience, in potentially harmful ways (beyond the obvious). Like, say some 15yo gets in there, buys himself a gram of coke, and it arrives. What then? He doesn’t know what to do. He hasn’t had anyone show him how. He doesn’t know a ‘recreational’ dose from a ‘wooah, easy does it’ one. If there’s one thing that generally comes with real-world drug use, it’s that anyone in that world generally had someone teach them the ropes. Show them a trick or two. Brief them in the (often false) urban rules of safety. Hydration. Don’t mix. Or at least: “Okay, mix those two, but only at the end… but not that one”. A few notes on when it’s time to stop. Tales of the time shit went bad, and maybe even why/how that occurred. Forgetting the illegality for a minute, I feel like that passed-on knowledge is part of drug culture, and that the Silk Road experience doesn’t really allow for that. For the veterans, no problem. Beginners? Potentially quite a dangerous place to stumble into.

The thing that has stuck with me the most since my little visit is the inevitability of what a site like Silk Road is, and what it means for the online sales of illegal stuff for the future. Sites like that one are nailing it. They’ll shut this version, just like they shut the last, and another ten will pop up. They killed Napster. They killed Suprnova. Demonoid disappeared for a while at least. None of that ever made a dent on music / video piracy… not really. Cut off a couple of heads. While those heads were being chased and chopped, the tech continued to mature behind the scenes, and the consumption of pirated media all the more prolific. You can feel that future for Silk Road, too. Silk Road is just a newer type of Napster – the first, the first of a very long line of successful (if short-lived) clones, getting better at their service and security with each new generation.

I’m not going to cast an opinion about the drugs themselves. We all know the deal. We all know the damage drugs do to families. We all know what sorts of things drug money usually funds. We all know how much jail-time people will do when they get caught, and that yeah, some of that shit’ll certainly kill you, and we all know that despite all this, plenty of people spend a good portion of their week finding, buying, and enjoying the hell out of their poison of choice. What I’m walking away from my stickybeak around Silk Road is a glimpse of the future. This type of online thing is here now. It  exists in the world, and is unlikely to go away. If anything, it’ll become more popular, and definitely easier to use. I haven’t checked, but I’m sure someone’s already made an app for that on a jailbroken phone.

These are strange days we’re living in. Strange days indeed.