Steep transaction fees and wild price fluctuations have made the cryptocurrency harder to use in the illicit markets that originally made it famous.
Of all of bitcoin’s uses—as a currency, a payment system, an investment, a commodity, a technology, a remittance network, a market hedge—perhaps its most notorious is as a facilitator of online drug transactions. For years now, the cryptocurrency has allowed anonymous purchasers to pay anonymous vendors on eBay-like markets, avoiding the use of the formal financial system and thus the easy intervention of the federal authorities.
“Making small talk with your pot dealer sucks. Buying cocaine can get you shot. What if you could buy and sell drugs online like books or light bulbs? Now you can: Welcome to Silk Road,” the journalist Adrian Chen wrote in an exposé for Gawker on the now-defunct market, back in 2011. At the time, Chen called it “the most complete implementation of the bitcoin vision” of freewheeling, anarcho-libertarian anonymity.
Seven years later, though, problems with using bitcoin on the dark web—a kind of mirror internet that uses encryption to ensure its participants’ privacy and features websites that are not accessible from standard browsers—have piled up. Purchasers and vendors are cancelling orders, losing money, and fleeing to other forms of cryptocurrency. Bitcoin remains in wide use for drugs and other illegal goods, but the shadowy markets that made it famous, and infamous, are turning on it.
For Wall Street–type investors seeking to buy and hold bitcoin or risk-happy prospectors looking to make a quick buck, such price swings are generally a feature, not a bug. Nor are they problematic for many the many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs interested in the blockchain technology underpinning the currency. But this kind of volatility is a headache for participants in marketplaces with transactions denominated in bitcoin. That means the darknet markets, which have continued to crop up and collapse since the federal authorities seizedSilk Road in 2013.
On those markets, the price of drugs and other illicit and licit goods are fundamentally pegged to dollars or euros, not bitcoin. Buyers think in terms of traditional currencies, in other words: An eighth of an ounce of marijuana is worth $25, not a minuscule fraction of a bitcoin. And vendors think in the same terms, often purchasing wholesale goods with dollars or other government-issued currencies, or seeking to sell their wares for cash in person. As such, “the price of a bitcoin does not matter,” Nicolas Christin, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University and an expert on the darknet markets, told me. “But that it is stable matters.”
To understand why, it helps to know a bit more about the mechanics of buying drugs on the dark web. A purchaser buys bitcoin, reviews vendors’ offers on a marketplace, and then pays for his goods. His money generally goes into escrow before it is released to his vendor. This introduces a number of financial choke points and transaction delays: between when the purchaser procures bitcoin and makes a purchase, when the vendor receives the order and receives payment from escrow, and when the vendor cashes out from the marketplace. Those are all moments when bitcoin’s volatility becomes problematic. For vendors, price drops while payments are in escrow might wipe out all the profits from a sale, for instance.
Complaints about these kinds of scenarios are rife in popular forums where buyers and vendors chat online, including on Reddit. “Seems I hear Vendors are sitting on the sidelines. If payment is in [bitcoin and] then [the] price falls all their work is for nigh,” one user recently posted, worrying that fewer vendors were selling given the market dynamics at work. Another complained, “Seriously?! I purchased coins this morning at like $675 and within 1.5 hours it dropped down to $625.”
Of course, licit markets have the exact same vulnerability to swings in the price of bitcoin. But those markets—with their deep-pocketed investors and ties to the formal financial system—have come up with ways to avoid them. “Merchants who want to avoid volatility will still accept bitcoin or cryptocurrency, and can use a service provider that automatically converts it,” Jerry Brito, the executive director of Coin Center, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization for cryptocurrencies, told me. “That service provider accepts bitcoin on their behalf, automatically converts it, and deposits dollars into the merchant’s account. That way they never face the volatility.”