When the recording industry smashed Napster with a $20 billion lawsuit more than a decade ago, filesharing morphed into Bittorrent, a fully peer-to-peer system with no central server for law enforcement to attack. Now the developers behind one software project are trying to pull off a similar trick with the anarchic model of bitcoin e-commerce pioneered by the billion-dollar Silk Road black market. And just as with Bittorrent, their new system may be so decentralized that not even its creators can control exactly how it will be used.
This weekend, the developers behind OpenBazaar plan to release a beta version of the software designed to let anyone privately and directly buy and sell goods online with no intermediary. They describe it as “pseudonymous, uncensored trade.” Rather than hosting its commerce on any server, OpenBazaar installs on users’ PCs, and allows them to list products in a file stored in a so-called “distributed hash table,” a database spread across many users’ machines. Everything will be paid in bitcoin. The result of that peer-to-peer architecture, they hope, will be a marketplace that no one—–no government, no company, not even the OpenBazaar programmers—can regulate or shut down.
“We’re just really passionate about allowing peer-to-peer trade to happen online. We want that to exist,” says Sam Patterson, the operations lead for the non-profit project. “The internet allowed you to communicate directly. Bitcoin allowed you to send money directly. Now you can trade directly.”
And just what will you trade on OpenBazaar? A good first guess might be drugs. The multi-headed marketplace, after all, is designed to thwart law enforcement seizures or takedowns that arrest any one person or group. And though it doesn’t currently offer much anonymity by default, Patterson says its initial version can be used through a VPN to hide users’ IP addresses, and it will soon integrate the anonymity software Tor or I2P.
In fact, OpenBazaar was first launched in April as a spinoff of another open-source prototype called DarkMarket. That project’s anarchist creator, Amir Taaki, says he was inspired by the FBI’s takedown of the Silk Road and designed DarkMarket to “equip the people with the tools needed for the next generation of digital black markets.”
But Patterson and OpenBazaar founder Brian Hoffman adamantly insist OpenBazaar isn’t designed for selling narcotics, guns, or other contraband. They see their invention as a freer, more democratic eBay or Craigslist, with no seller fees and no one to arbitrarily change the rules or censor products. “We’re not the ‘Super Silk Road.’ We’re trying to replace eBay in a better form,” says Patterson. “We recognize that people may choose to use that technology in a way we see as distasteful, immoral, and illegal, but we’re giving them the option to engage in a kind of human interaction that doesn’t exist right now.”