Image: Wikimedia Commons
This morning, anyone hoping to browse Utopia, the
up and coming now-defunct competitor to Silk Road 2.0, were greeted with an unwelcome but at this point familiar message: “This hidden service has been seized, by the Dutch National Police.” The online black market was shut down a mere nine days after its much-anticipated launch.
Despite rumors of a hack, Dutch cops have issued a statement saying they arrested five men in connection with running Utopia and seized computers, hard drives, USB sticks, and “about 900 Bitcoins”—roughly $600,000. Utopia’s servers were apparently housed in Germany, where another man was arrested on suspicion of weapons and drug trafficking.
The Dutch launched operation CONDOR in early 2013 to uncover illegal marketplaces on the Tor network, of the likes of Silk Road 2.0 and Utopia. The investigation into Utopia pulled out all the stops: undercover agents and “buy-busts,” not just of drugs, but also a contract assassination—much to the surprise of the Dutch public prosecutor.
According to the BBC, Utopia was a very popular marketplace, and more than 1,200 listings for a range of illegal goods appeared on the site within the first several hours of operation. Up until yesterday’s takedown, there were more than 13,000 listings, of the normal variety for illegal marketplaces: an assortment of cannabinoids, hallucinogens, stimulants, an ample supple of hacking services, forged currency and clothes, and guns and ammo. Much like Silk Road, Utopia relied on Bitcoin to facilitate transactions—taking a cut from each one.
Screenshot of the Utopia website after it was seized by Dutch police
Like the spinoffs before it, the deep web community had high hopes for Utopia, heralding it as “the biggest competition for Silk Road 2.0.” The site was backed by former Black Market Reloaded administrator “backopy,” and some intended for it to be a kind of replacement for Black Market Reloaded.
One of Silk Road 2.0’s forum moderators, "Stealth," posted a brief message late last night expressing solidarity: “This is a serious blow to the darkweb marketplace community as honest competition is our lifeblood,” wrote Stealth. The moderator went on to encourage Utopia members to use the Silk Road’s forums to “regroup and do it again. Show them that you, we, are a hydra—cut off one head and ten more spring up.”
Utopia’s seizure—while remarkable in terms of how quickly Dutch cops were able to shut it down—signals a growing trend in the world’s black markets: they're moving online. Drug historian Dr. Paul Gootenberg has told me in the past that the popularity of the internet and the ease of selling illegal goods online make it an attractive new avenue for buyers and sellers. And as more and more services use the darknet to operate, law enforcement has been forced to respond.
Is the era of online drug markets over? It seems clear is that despite the careful rhetoric used by the leaders of illegal marketplaces, often referring to their contraband activities as a “revolution” or “movement,” police aren't going to stop chasing them down.