Freedom in the Dark

Welcome to the Dark Net. Welcome to the human race.


The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld, by Jamie Bartlett, Melville House, 308 pages, $27.95

The Dark Net cover

The most paranoid fantasy about what happens in the darkest corners when humanity is unsupervised online might look something like the assassination markets described in Jamie Bartlett's The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld. The idea, hatched by the anarchist Jim Bell, is to allow anonymous digital cash donations toward the slaying of public figures. Correctly predicting the death date wins the bettor a payoff, based on the sly presumption that the reason you got it right was that you caused the death. The idea, Bartlett explains, was to exert "a populist pressure on elected representatives to be good." This grim technofantasy for angry dissidents has not, as far as we know, ever paid off.

Bartlett directs the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at the British think tank Demos (not to be confused with the liberal American think tank of the same name). He began his breezy and humane book expecting to find more clear-cut cases of people and behaviors to condemn and proscribe. But what he ended up finding was just human beings: dedicated, troubled, incendiary, funny, craving to be heard and understood. Welcome to the Dark Net. Welcome to the human race.

Early in the book, Bartlett tackles the topic of "trolls," whose behavior ranges from flogging obscure running gags at sites where they are not welcome to outright harassment (comedically, they think, though they must know and not care that their targets might not find it funny). Especially when it consists of "doxing"—revealing the actual identities and addresses of the people behind the words on the Internet—trolling can and does sometimes lead to suicides, relationships destroyed, families split apart, careers ended.

Demonstrating the inevitability of the troll phenomenon, Bartlett traces it back to the earliest days of Arpanet, BBSes, and Usenet, long before there even was a World Wide Web. In 1987, when Usenet gatekeepers tried to scotch a "rec.drugs" board, the libertarian Sun Microsystems multimillionaire (and privacy advocate) John Gilmore invented the "alt" hierarchy to host it. The alt sector became an early home to a rich and awful ecosystem of trolling, some of it hilarious and some of it disturbing.

A fellow called Old Holborn, named Britain's "vilest troll" by the Daily Mail, serves as this chapter's linchpin, which Bartlett frames in libertarian terms. Holborn, as Bartlett sums it up, craves a stateless utopia and believes that a world where "everyone is easily offended will lead to self-censorship," so he "sees it as his role to prod and probe the boundaries of offensiveness to keep society alert." In general, Bartlett sees trolls as following "a libertarian ideology" that "part of living in a free society is accepting that no idea is beyond being challenged or ridiculed, and that nothing is more stifling to free expression than being afraid to upset or offend."

It can be difficult for the sober-minded to value people being funny assholes on the Internet. Even many who laugh along with some trolls' antics might admit the phenomenon is intellectually indefensible. But Bartlett is too open-minded and curious about trolling to merely condemn it. He accepts that what many trolls say is true: Something irrepressible in human nature requires pushing against any barrier, physical or social, just because it's there.

Bartlett then plunges into darkness more Stygian than comic, focusing on a nativist group called the English Defense League (EDL). The EDL folks say they support traditional British culture, which they feel is being damaged by Muslims and other immigrants. The EDL's foes say they're just racist. Facebook became a rich organizing tool for both the EDLers and their enemies, with each side frequently using fake accounts, so no one could be sure their apparent allies online weren't provocateurs or phonies. Put another way, both sides embraced trolling as a weapon.

By the end of this part of the book, the EDL character who forms the spine of Bartlett's narrative is weary of the online sturm und drang, admitting it hardened and coarsened his thinking. Still, he found it difficult to pull away from the world of Internet brawling, "because I ache to have a voice." One of the truths sewn through this book is that people feel that ache intensely, and that trying to take away that voice can feel violent, can feel like war.

One way to make sure your voice can't be crushed is to make sure your voice is hidden from those you don't want listening in. That leads Bartlett to one of the more obviously libertarian roots of modern Net culture: the cypherpunks and their children.

The cypherpunks were a gang of mostly libertarian technologists and activists who first cohered on obscure email listservs in the early 1990s. There they predicted and facilitated many of the techniques that now trouble those worried about the Dark Net, including cryptocurrencies (to allow uncensorable anonymous markets) and cryptography (to let people transmit words or images without the authorities being able to trace or punish the transmitters). The most prominent link between that '90s world of libertarian coders and the messy 21st century is "proff," an Australian cypherpunk known for poking at the more respectable digital freedom types, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, for (as proff put it) "compromise, present-day politics, and a general lack of moral fiber."

proff's real name was Julian Assange, and he showed his own lack of compromise by launching WikiLeaks, an international collective dedicated to publishing information that powerful institutions would rather keep secret, ideally while keeping the leakers anonymous. Assange thus injected that obscure cypherpunk listserv drama into international geopolitics with a bang.

After the WikiLeaks-supported Edward Snowden made his very public revelations about National Security Agency spying, the use of Pretty Good Privacy-the easiest publicly availably personal crypto tool-tripled within a few months. The world these obscure libertarians were predicting and making became everyone else's very quickly.

Assange was not the only notable figure to emerge from libertarian crypto communities. In 2008, on a successor to the original cypherpunk listserv, the still-mysterious "Satoshi Nakamoto" introduced the world to Bitcoin, a digital currency whose use doesn't require either side of the transaction to know the other's real identity. Nakamoto had libertarian motives, or at least he understood his creation's appeal to libertarians: He wrote to Hal Finney, the second user of Bitcoin, that the currency was "very attractive to the libertarian viewpoint if we can explain it properly."

Bitcoin connects with Bartlett's narrative via Amir Taaki, a radical he visits in a communal Spanish squat, where we see Taaki and his programmers bridling at traditional commie attempts to settle everything with constant meetings. Taaki's team hole themselves away to work on such challenges as designing a more truly anonymous, rather than just pseudonymous, Bitcoin system. Taaki is enraged when ameliorists connected with the Bitcoin Foundation, such as the software developer Mike Hearn, say things like "people are going to be disappointed when it turns out that bankless money doesn't actually create anarchy." Taaki counters with, "Bitcoins aren't a fucking payment innovation. Bitcoins are a political project."

Bitcoin leads, naturally, to a chapter about the most famous part of the Dark Net, the illegal bitcoin-driven marketplace Silk Road, with the appropriate takeaway that "the real secret of dark net markets is good customer service."

Another dark world Bartlett surveys at chapter length is the one that contains the makers, distributors, and consumers of child pornography. Bartlett is suitably horrified but avoids moral panic, noting that real-world child sex abuse in the Internet age has, as far as the best available data can tell us, dropped by 62 percent in the U.S. and not increased in the United Kingdom.

The book ends with a step back to the big picture of whether techno-modernity will be a savior or destroyer. Bartlett illustrates the argument by pitting Zoltan Istvan against John Zerzan. Istvan is a popularizer of transhumanism, which wants to use technology to transcend all human limitations. Zerzan is a purveyor of primitivism, the idea of abandoning technological modernity for an allegedly more human, livable, and lovable way of life (for a far smaller number of people than currently live on this Earth).

The book's secret theme becomes clear when Bartlett notes that Zerzan uses the Web to spread his tech-hating ideology. Zerzan sighingly notes that "you need to use every tool at your disposal to spread those ideas, even if you dislike" the instruments in question. Any human need or attitude will fill every niche that human ability allows. If we have an Internet, we are going to do everything possible on the Internet. Everything.

Even after all the darkness he explores, Bartlett seems optimistic. And while he doesn't lay out the reasons for that optimism directly, you may find a reason for hope in his summation of the cypherpunk message. The Net, light or dark, allows us "to hold multiple personalities and identities," he writes. And that "extends the degrees of freedom individuals have, which in the long run will encourage people to live more productive and self-reliant lives, and leave more space for new ways of living."