THE first ever e-commerce transaction, conducted by students from Stanford and MIT in the early 1970s, involved the sale of a small quantity of marijuana. For decades afterwards, the online drugs trade was severely constrained by the ability of law enforcement to track IP addresses and the means of payment. The trickle of transactions threatened to become a flood with the emergence a few years ago of Silk Road, a drug-dealing site on the “dark net”. These e-depths cannot be reached through a normal browser but only with anonymising software called Tor. Buyers and sellers transact there pseudonymously in bitcoin, a crypto-currency.
Silk Road was shut last year with the arrest of Ross Ulbricht, the 29-year-old American whom investigators believe to be Dread Pirate Roberts, the site’s founder. Mr Ulbricht is due to stand trial in New York next January on charges that include computer hacking and money laundering. But law enforcers who predicted that Silk Road’s demise would mark the beginning of the end for online black-market bazaars were wrong. Instead, dozens of dark-net Amazons and eBays (also known as crypto-markets) have sprung up to fill the void. They are not only proving remarkably resilient but expanding their offerings and growing more sophisticated. This is fascinating stuff, like something out of a dystopian future. What intrigues me is the code name of the site's founder -- Dread Pirate Roberts. Could he be thinking of "Black Bart" Bartholomew Roberts, a pirate of the so-called Golden Age of Piracy (early 18th century)? So many wonderful tales are told of Roberts that he could be a myth. For a start, he dressed as only the highest class of pirate should -- in a crimson damask waistcoat and breeches, a broad tricorne with a red plume on his head, and lots and lots of bling -- only it was real gold, and real diamonds. He also strongly disapproved of heavy drinking, and once shot a crewman without hesitation when the cheeky, drunken so-and-so addressed him in an insolent manner. His men disliked his heavy-handed disciplinary style, but respected him for the wealth in prizes that he brought to the ship -- so much so, that when he was killed by a broadside from HMS Swallow they threw his body overboard so that the navy would not hang his corpse from a gibbet, in chains. Is the founder of "Silk Road" anything like Black Bart? Somehow, I doubt it.