Is the internet good or evil? Well, neither — the internet, just like the information you find on it, is really what you make of it. Some people use information for good purposes, and some use it for bad.

Here at Above the Law, we tend to see the internet as a force for good. We use our bandwidth on the web to entertain and to educate. Our view is that, in general, more information is good. With more information, people can make better choices about their lives and careers. Should I go to law school? If so, which law school? And what about law firms? Which firms are the best places to work?

But you can use the internet for anything, really. For some folks, to quote the popular song from the musical Avenue Q, The Internet Is For Porn — and so much more, from the shady to the downright illegal….

This morning, Jason Thomas of Thomson Reuters kicked off LegalTech New York 2014 with an interesting and engaging presentation entitled “TOR, Bitcoin, and the Anonymous Web: Drugs, Bombs and Murder-for-Hire.” Thomas, the Leader of Innovation at Thomson Reuters Special Services and Manager of Innovation for Thomson Reuters Government — very cool job titles, no? — delivered a talk that my colleague Joe Patrice, also in attendance, described as “delightfully like a drug trip: Technology is awesome! You can do all sorts of illegal things and no one can catch you… but otherwise awesome!”

I can see where Joe is coming from with the drug trip comparison (even though, for the record, I’ve never been on a drug trip myself). Thomas’s talk had a heady, exciting quality, full of possibility and potential (and also peril, but we’ll get to that later).

Thomas began by asking the packed ballroom, a standing-room-only crowd of several hundred people, whether anyone did not have a mobile device. Nobody raised a hand. He then imagined asking about whether anyone had a mobile device in a similar crowd twenty years ago. Back then, maybe one person would have raised his hand, and we all would have wondered, “Who is that guy?”

The way that mobile technology has taken over our lives in the past two decades is remarkable. Paraphrasing Winston Churchill’s famous saying about buildings, Thomas noted that we shape our technologies, and then they shape us. He cited a dazzling array of statistics about the power of technology (which, he noted, are now outdated). For example:

  • 1 in 5 couples meet online (and among gay couples, the number is 3 in 5).
  • If Facebook were a country, it would be the world’s third-largest by population.
  • A new member joins LinkedIn every second.
  • Every minute, 24 hours worth of video are uploaded to YouTube.

Thomas cited Moore’s law in noting how technology continually gets cheaper, more powerful, faster, and lighter. He noted that his wristwatch possesses more computing power than early personal computers that were vast in size and astronomically high in cost.

With all this as background, Thomas turned his talk towards Tor. Here’s a description, from the Tor Project’s website: “Tor is free software and an open network that helps you defend against traffic analysis, a form of network surveillance that threatens personal freedom and privacy, confidential business activities and relationships, and state security.”

The anonymity provided by Tor is a powerful thing. It can be wonderful for people who live under totalitarian regimes that censor the internet, but it can also be used to create websites that can be used for illicit purposes. Browsing through a list of Tor-driven websites, Thomas showed us links to websites where you can purchase the services of hackers and hit men, as well as such goods as drugs, child pornography, and unlicensed firearms. (He was careful not to click on any of the links, of course.)

One of the most famous such sites, Thomas noted, is Silk Road, a giant online bazaar for drugs and other contraband. The site got shut down a few months ago by the FBI, but now it’s back up.

How do you make purchases on sites like Silk Road? You use the digital currency of Bitcoin, which is neither issued nor regulated by the U.S. government (at least not yet). Because Bitcoin isn’t tracked in the same way that dollars are — there is a public record of transactions, but it’s all anonymous, and nobody has to file a currency transaction report, regardless of amount — Bitcoin has become “the coin of the realm” for illicit online activity.

You can use Bitcoin for perfectly legal purposes too, of course. ATL editor emerita Kashmir Hill, who got a shout-out during Thomas’s talk, managed to live in San Francisco for a week on Bitcoin.

What can be said about this brave new world, in which legal and illegal activities alike have been made so much easier thanks to technology? Jason Thomas closed with the wise words of comedian Louis C.K.: “Everything’s amazing, and nobody’s happy.”

Jason Thomas delivers keynote at LegalTech New York [The Knowledge Effect / Thomson Reuters]
Thomson Reuters’ Jason Thomas Speaks On the TOR Network and Anonymous Web in LegalTech Keynote: Twitter Reaction [LXBN]
Who will tax Bitcoin and how? [The Knowledge Effect / Thomson Reuters]


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