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  • If you want to buy high-quality, low-price cocaine,

  • there really is only one place to go,

  • and that is the dark net anonymous markets.

  • Now, you can't get to these sites

  • with a normal browser -- Chrome or Firefox --

  • because they're on this hidden part of the Internet,

  • known as Tor hidden services,

  • where URLs are a string of meaningless numbers and letters that end in .onion,

  • and which you access with a special browser

  • called the Tor browser.

  • Now, the Tor browser was originally a U.S. Naval intelligence project.

  • It then became open source,

  • and it allows anybody to browse the net

  • without giving away their location.

  • And it does this by encrypting your IP address

  • and then routing it via several other computers around the world

  • that use the same software.

  • You can use it on the normal Internet,

  • but it's also your key to the dark net.

  • And because of this fiendishly clever encryption system,

  • the 20 or 30 -- we don't know exactly -- thousand sites that operate there

  • are incredibly difficult to shut down.

  • It is a censorship-free world visited by anonymous users.

  • Little wonder, then, that it's a natural place to go

  • for anybody with something to hide,

  • and that something, of course, need not be illegal.

  • On the dark net, you will find

  • whistle-blower sites, The New Yorker.

  • You will find political activism blogs.

  • You will find libraries of pirated books.

  • But you'll also find the drugs markets,

  • illegal pornography, commercial hacking services,

  • and much more besides.

  • Now, the dark net is one of the most interesting, exciting places

  • anywhere on the net.

  • And the reason is, because although innovation, of course,

  • takes place in big businesses,

  • takes place in world-class universities,

  • it also takes place in the fringes,

  • because those on the fringes -- the pariahs, the outcasts --

  • they're often the most creative, because they have to be.

  • In this part of the Internet,

  • you will not find a single lolcat,

  • a single pop-up advert anywhere.

  • And that's one of the reasons why I think

  • many of you here will be on the dark net fairly soon.

  • (Laughter)

  • Not that I'm suggesting anyone in this audience would use it

  • to go and procure high-quality narcotics.

  • But let's say for a moment that you were.

  • (Laughter)

  • Bear with me.

  • The first thing you will notice on signing up to one of these sites

  • is how familiar it looks.

  • Every single product --

  • thousands of products --

  • has a glossy, high-res image,

  • a detailed product description, a price.

  • There's a "Proceed to checkout" icon.

  • There is even, most beautifully of all,

  • a "Report this item" button.

  • (Laughter)

  • Incredible.

  • You browse through the site, you make your choice,

  • you pay with the crypto-currency bitcoin,

  • you enter an address -- preferably not your home address --

  • and you wait for your product to arrive in the post,

  • which it nearly always does.

  • And the reason it does is not because of the clever encryption.

  • That's important.

  • Something far simpler than that.

  • It's the user reviews.

  • (Laughter)

  • You see, every single vendor on these sites

  • uses a pseudonym, naturally enough,

  • but they keep the same pseudonym to build up a reputation.

  • And because it's easy for the buyer to change allegiance whenever they want,

  • the only way of trusting a vendor

  • is if they have a good history of positive feedback

  • from other users of the site.

  • And this introduction of competition and choice

  • does exactly what the economists would predict.

  • Prices tend to go down, product quality tends to go up,

  • and the vendors are attentive,

  • they're polite, they're consumer-centric,

  • offering you all manner of special deals, one-offs,

  • buy-one-get-one-frees, free delivery,

  • to keep you happy.

  • I spoke to Drugsheaven.

  • Drugsheaven was offering excellent and consistent marijuana

  • at a reasonable price.

  • He had a very generous refund policy,

  • detailed T's and C's,

  • and good shipping times.

  • "Dear Drugsheaven," I wrote,

  • via the internal emailing system that's also encrypted, of course.

  • "I'm new here. Do you mind if I buy just one gram of marijuana?"

  • A couple of hours later, I get a reply.

  • They always reply.

  • "Hi there, thanks for your email.

  • Starting small is a wise thing to do. I would, too, if I were you."

  • (Laughter)

  • "So no problem if you'd like to start with just one gram.

  • I do hope we can do business together.

  • Best wishes, Drugsheaven."

  • (Laughter)

  • I don't know why he had a posh English accent, but I assume he did.

  • Now, this kind of consumer-centric attitude

  • is the reason why, when I reviewed 120,000 pieces of feedback

  • that had been left on one of these sites over a three-month period,

  • 95 percent of them were five out of five.

  • The customer, you see, is king.

  • But what does that mean?

  • Well, on the one hand,

  • that means there are more drugs, more available, more easily,

  • to more people.

  • And by my reckoning, that is not a good thing.

  • But, on the other hand, if you are going to take drugs,

  • you have a reasonably good way

  • of guaranteeing a certain level of purity and quality,

  • which is incredibly important if you're taking drugs.

  • And you can do so from the comfort of your own home,

  • without the risks associated with buying on the streets.

  • Now, as I said,

  • you've got to be creative and innovative to survive in this marketplace.

  • And the 20 or so sites that are currently in operation --

  • by the way, they don't always work, they're not always perfect;

  • the site that I showed you was shut down 18 months ago,

  • but not before it had turned over a billion dollars' worth of trade.

  • But these markets,

  • because of the difficult conditions in which they are operating,

  • the inhospitable conditions,

  • are always innovating, always thinking of ways of getting smarter,

  • more decentralized, harder to censor,

  • and more customer-friendly.

  • Let's take the payment system.

  • You don't pay with your credit card,

  • of course -- that would lead directly back to you.

  • So you use the crypto-currency bitcoin,

  • which is easily exchanged for real-world currencies

  • and gives quite a high degree of anonymity to its users.

  • But at the beginning of these sites, people noticed a flaw.

  • Some of the unscrupulous dealers were running away with peoples' bitcoin

  • before they'd mailed the drugs out.

  • The community came up with a solution, called multi-signature escrow payments.

  • So, on purchasing my item,

  • I would send my bitcoin

  • to a neutral, secure third digital wallet.

  • The vendor, who would see that I'd sent it,

  • would be confident that they could then send the product to me,

  • and then when I received it,

  • at least two of the three people engaged in the transaction --

  • vendor, buyer, site administrator --

  • would have to sign the transaction off

  • with a unique digital signature,

  • and then the money would be transferred.

  • Brilliant!

  • Elegant.

  • It works.

  • But then they realized there was a problem with bitcoin,

  • because every bitcoin transaction

  • is actually recorded publicly in a public ledger.

  • So if you're clever, you can try and work out who's behind them.

  • So they came up with a tumbling service.

  • Hundreds of people send their bitcoin into one address,

  • they're tumbled and jumbled up,

  • and then the right amount is sent on to the right recipients,

  • but they're different bitcoins:

  • micro-laundering systems.

  • (Laughter)

  • It's incredible.

  • Interested in what drugs are trending right now on the dark net markets?

  • Check Grams, the search engine.

  • You can even buy some advertising space.

  • (Laughter)

  • Are you an ethical consumer worried about what the drugs industry is doing?

  • Yeah.

  • One vendor will offer you fair trade organic cocaine.

  • (Laughter)

  • That's not being sourced from Colombian druglords,

  • but Guatemalan farmers.

  • They even promised to reinvest 20 percent of any profits

  • into local education programs.

  • (Laughter)

  • There's even a mystery shopper.

  • Now, whatever you think about the morality of these sites --

  • and I submit that it's not actually an easy question --

  • the creation of functioning, competitive, anonymous markets,

  • where nobody knows who anybody else is,

  • constantly at risk of being shut down by the authorities,

  • is a staggering achievement,

  • a phenomenal achievement.

  • And it's that kind of innovation

  • that's why those on the fringes

  • are often the harbingers of what is to come.

  • It's easy to forget

  • that because of its short life,

  • the Internet has actually changed many times

  • over the last 30 years or so.

  • It started in the '70s as a military project,

  • morphed in the 1980s to an academic network,

  • co-opted by commercial companies in the '90s,

  • and then invaded by all of us via social media in the noughties,

  • but I think it's going to change again.

  • And I think things like the dark net markets --

  • creative, secure, difficult to censor --

  • I think that's the future.

  • And the reason it's the future

  • is because we're all worried about our privacy.

  • Surveys consistently show concerns about privacy.

  • The more time we spend online, the more we worry about them,

  • and those surveys show our worries are growing.

  • We're worried about what happens to our data.

  • We're worried about who might be watching us.

  • Since the revelations from Edward Snowden,

  • there's been a huge increase in the number of people

  • using various privacy-enhancing tools.

  • There are now between two and three million daily users

  • of the Tor browser,

  • the majority of which use is perfectly legitimate,

  • sometimes even mundane.

  • And there are hundreds of activists around the world

  • working on techniques and tools to keep you private online --

  • default encrypted messaging services.

  • Ethereum, which is a project which tries to link up

  • the connected but unused hard drives of millions of computers around the world,

  • to create a sort of distributed Internet that no one really controls.

  • Now, we've had distributed computing before, of course.

  • We use it for everything from Skype to the search for extraterrestrial life.

  • But you add distributed computing and powerful encryption --

  • that's very, very hard to censor and control.

  • Another called MaidSafe works on similar principles.

  • Another called Twister, and so on and so on.

  • And here's the thing --

  • the more of us join,

  • the more interesting those sites become,

  • and then the more of us join, and so on.

  • And I think that's what's going to happen.

  • In fact, it's already happening.

  • The dark net is no longer a den for dealers

  • and a hideout for whistle-blowers.

  • It's already going mainstream.

  • Just recently, the musician Aphex Twin released his album as a dark net site.

  • Facebook has started a dark net site.

  • A group of London architects have opened a dark net site

  • for people worried about regeneration projects.

  • Yes, the dark net is going mainstream,

  • and I predict that fairly soon, every social media company,

  • every major news outlet,

  • and therefore most of you in this audience,

  • will be using the dark net, too.

  • So the Internet is about to get more interesting,

  • more exciting, more innovative,

  • more terrible,

  • more destructive.

  • That's good news if you care about liberty.

  • It's good news if you care about freedom.