When the Department of Justice took down the anonymous, Bitcoin-based narcotics bazaar known as the Silk Road in October, the dark web drug market didn’t disappear. It splintered into smaller markets. And now a new site known as DarkList has taken on the mission of sewing the fractured online drug industry back together.
DarkList, which first appeared in December but took a month-long hiatus before relaunching Wednesday, aims to be a directory of all the disparate underground drug dealers on the growing number of dark web marketplaces including Silk Road 2.0, Agora, The Marketplace, Blue Sky, Pandora, and others. When one of the sites shuts down–a common-enough occurrence in the Web’s wild underground–DarkList says it will help the site’s customers reconnect with their preferred dealers on other sites. “Let’s face it – buying and selling anonymously on the Dark Web is currently in a volatile state,” reads the tagline on the site’s homepage. “We built this directory so that you can always have a way to stay in contact with those you love.”
Like the anonymous markets it links to, DarkList runs as a Tor hidden service to hide users’ identities and its own location. But unlike those sites, an unnamed DarkList admin tells me, the directory won’t actually participate directly in illegal commerce–a decision that’s part of its strategy to be “as uninteresting to [law enforcement] as possible.”
“We don’t sell product,” the DarkList admin writes to me. “The brief history of dark web marketplaces shows that there are three possible outcomes: incarceration, scam, or get hacked – none of which are congruent with our aspirations or morals. So, instead of being the Walmart of drugs, we are more interested in a model analogous to Yelp.”
Indeed, plenty of sites have ended in one of the three ways DarkList’s admin names over just the last few months. In October the creator of the Silk Road, who went by the name Dread Pirate Roberts, was arrested and the site seized by law enforcement, along with nearly $150 million worth of bitcoins. The administrators of competing sites Atlantis, Project Black Flag, and Sheep Marketplace all absconded with the bitcoins users and dealers has stored on their sites. And several of those marketplaces, as well as the relaunched Silk Road, have faced barrages of hacker attacks that took them offline for days or even weeks at a stretch.
DarkList isn’t the only one to think of responding to those outages by creating a directory of individual drug dealers. So has another site calling itself “All Markets Vendor Directory” created by someone by the name of El Presidente. But DarkList has gone much further than just listing the dealers–it also includes a function to message them, and even to send them Bitcoin payments. The site’s profits come from a 2.5% fee it takes on those transactions as well as Bitcoin donations.
The directory sites represent yet another move in the developing game of whack-a-mole facing law enforcement as they try to crack down on the online narcotics industry. DarkList, in fact, seems to position itself as less clearly illegal than sites like the Silk Road–a difficult argument given that it could likely still be accused of narcotics conspiracy–or at least less of a target for law enforcement. “I can tell you that we have limited our functionality, as well as monetization opportunities, to mitigate the interest of those wishing to enforce their laws,” DarkList’s admin writes to me.
In fact, DarkList looks a lot like a scheme posted last month to the Silk Road Reddit forum by a user known as Synth3i, whose frustrated response to the series of site shutdowns in the dark web drug industry was soon upvoted and widely discussed. “Buy straight from the vendors, no market, no middle man running an unsecured site that puts everybody at risk,” his suggestion reads. “You buy from who YOU trust, you make your own judgement calls…If it’s clear that the problem is the markets, then remove the markets.”
DarkList doesn’t go that far, however; Rather than replace the markets, it links to them. But it may indeed make law enforcement’s job more complicated, helping to unite the different dark web markets so that one of the sites’ disappearance hardly affects the sales of the site’s dealers. “A marketplace goes down, and everyone scrambles to connect with each other,” says the DarkList admin. “That’s where DarkList really shines (in a dark way).”
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