The Tor Browser, the Darknet Market and the Limits of Resistance in Today’s Cyberspace
This workshop examines the Darknet phenomenon with an aim to demystify and critically ground it within the discourse of resistance in cyberspace. The workshop begins with a brief history of the Tor project, the anonymizing web protocol which enables the Darknet to exist, and of the Darknet itself in its current form, dominated by eCommerce black markets. The different technologies of the Darknet, such as Bitcoin and Tor, are explained as tools which subvert the Internet’s infrastructure in order to create a space of resistance that works by circumventing the identification schema, i.e. IP addresses, which underpin the Internet. The Darknet Market is expanded upon in similar terms as a constellation of newer, subversive technologies, like Bitcoin and Tor, operating upon a framework of appropriated eCommerce technologies, such as eBay’s user feedback system and Amazon’s web design, down to something as analog as the postal system, which are all used to construct the actual market and facilitate its operation.
These explanations will be grounded by a practical demonstration of the methods used to access a Darknet Market, providing a visual narrative alongside the theoretical explanation. This visual overview will cover the purchase of Bitcoin, downloading the most commonly used Darknet access software, the Tor Browser bundle, and using it to navigate to the largest Darknet Market operating today, The Agora Marketplace, which deals almost entirely in prohibited or restricted drugs. Examining the Darknet visually will allow for a clearer demonstration of the political alternative that something like the Agora Marketplace represents. By constructing a drug market that uses the same quality assurance techniques as developed by traditional peer-to-peer commerce websites, such as eBay or Etsy, Agora represents a viable alternative model for drug distribution in the current climate of prohibition.
However, having given an overview of the seemingly miraculous feat of subversion that is the so-called “Amazon of drugs”, the workshop concludes with a highly critical look at what these modes of “resistance” represent as limitations. Drawing on the cyber-ethicist Oscar Gandy and media theorist Wendy Chun, I argue that these modes of virtual resistance fundamentally sidestep the material conditions of drug prohibition which continue to oppress marginalized groups, such as poor or homeless drug addicts who may not have access to something as predicated on advanced techno-literacy as the Darknet. Further, given the intensely surveillant reality of cyberspace today, especially given what we know in a post-Snowden world, my concluding remarks cast doubt on the idea of resistance from within cyberspace entirely. While the Darknet subverts the Internet, it still operates within it, and thus the best-case scenario for such a mode is constant scrutiny and attack by law enforcement and governmental organizations. However, as with so many utopian narratives of cyberspace, even if it is successful it still represents a solution that ignores the continued material reality of the problem it subverts for those fortunate enough to have access to it.
Spencer Revoy is a doctoral candidate in the Cultural Studies program at Queen’s University and affiliate of the Surveillance Studies Centre. He is trained as a media and cultural theorist, focusing on the critical examination of technology design, especially the analysis of its cultural impact and surveillance capacity. His work is highly interdisciplinary, coordinated variously between cultural studies, surveillance studies, media studies and philosophy. Presently, his research involves three projects: evaluating the interface engineering and marketing paradigm of “user-friendliness” as a vital condition of mass surveillance; the influence of e-commerce inspired social media sites on the politics of friendship; and the ontological position of surveillance in a post-Snowden understanding of the Internet, informed by Gilles Deleuze’s philosophy of immanence. His other research interests include: comparative literature, especially SF, Noir and Fantasy; Deconstructive performance theory; and continental philosophy, especially Foucault, Deleuze and Bauman.