The dream of an anonymous, uncensorable online marketplace is finally here

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On OpenBazaar, you can buy absolutely anything. Glenn3095/Flickr (PD)

One of the internet’s most radical projects is finally open for business.

OpenBazaar is an online peer-to-peer marketplace like eBay, or Etsy, with a twist. There’s no central authority, with the site decentralised across the entire network of people using it — making it impossible to close down or censor.

Depending on who you talk to, OpenBazaar is either the revolutionary future of commerce, or a next-generation “Silk Road” that wil be a haven for criminals. (Or both!)

Some of the hottest venture capital investment firms are bankrolling it — and on Monday, it officially launched.

It has grown from shady origins to something much bigger

Back when it was first conceived in 2014, OpenBazaar was called “DarkMarket,” and explicitly framed itself as a successor to Silk Road, the notorious online drugs market that the Feds busted in 2013. By decentralising it, it would make it impossible to close down without arresting every single person on the network — even if individual merchants got caught.

Developer Brian Hoffman subsequently took over, and rebranded the project as OpenBazaar. He has been trying to change the narrative around the shop, framing it instead as a “next-generation Etsy.” His efforts got some attention, and in June 2015 it took a $1 million (£700,000) seed round from venture capital firms Andreessen Horowitz and Union Square Ventures.

That said, Hoffman still recognises that the platform will — eventually — be used for criminal activity. After all, it would be literally impossible to stop without undermining the fundamental premise of OpenBazaar. The platform is anonymous, but the developers aren’t building in anonymising software like Tor yet, so as not to encourage flagrantly illegal “misuse.”

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A search for ‘art’ on the newly released OpenBazaar brings up homemade artworks and soap. OpenBazaar

OpenBazaar is a wild vision — with dozens of unanswered questions

OpenBazaar’s vision is, fundamentally, a new way to do business online. Inspired by decentralised file-sharing protocol bittorrent, and fiercely libertarian digital currency bitcoin, it wants to create a kind of truly free online market without middle-men, where merchants and customers are only bound by their own morality.

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Brian Hoffman, lead developer of OpenBazaar and CEO of OB1, a service company running on the platform. Brian Hoffman/Twitter

“We’re giving [people] the option to engage in a kind of human interaction that doesn’t exist now,” developer Sam Patterson told Wired in 2014.

Back in March, it did a “testnet” release — a kind of beta release which uses fake “testnet” bitcoins to iron out any kinks and bugs ahead of the official launch. The trial was a success: It was downloaded 25,000 times, with more than 3,000 items listed, OpenBazaar says on its blog. But there are still huge questions hanging over the project — ones Hoffman accepts he doesn’t have all the answers to, and will only become clear over the coming weeks and months.

For example: Will the value proposition of lower fees be enough to convince ordinary merchants and customers to start using OpenBazaar? Will people trust the technology? Will people trust the decentralised libertarian philosophy behind it? Will the platform be overrun by illegal or immoral goods, despite the developers’ intentions? Will normal people be scared off by the existence of these illegal and immoral goods on the platform? Will law enforcement consider OpenBazaar’s developers criminally liable for building an uncensorable marketplace that can be used for illegal activities? Will it even work properly?

Whatever happens, it’s going to be an exciting ride. So sit back and enjoy the show.

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