It’s a safe bet that FBI director James Comey and Brian Hoffman would not get along.
Earlier this week, as Comey was testifying to a US House Committee about the risks of encryption letting criminals “go dark,” Hoffman and his team were working on a “testnet” release of OpenBazaar — a decentralised and uncensorable online marketplace that can be used by anyone to sell anything without fear of police intervention.
OpenBazaar has been in the works in some form since 2014 when it was conceived by controversial bitcoin developer Amir Taaki. The vision is an online peer-to-peer market, in the vein of eBay or Etsy — but unlike eBay, transactions will take place using bitcoin, and the entire site will be decentralised across the network of people accessing it, making it impossible to close down.
Hoffman subsequently took over from Taaki, rebranding the project as OpenBazaar, and in June 2015 it took a $1 million (£700,000) seed round from tech venture capital firms Andreessen Horowitz and Union Square Ventures.
Since then it has been working towards a public release of its software — and on March 2, the project took a big leap forward.
The testnet is live — and a full release is just weeks away
There’s now a functioning version of OpenBazaar running on the “testnet.” This is a kind of open beta that anyone can download and run, but it uses “testnet bitcoin” — a “fake” version of the digital currency for running tests that doesn’t have any real value. It means the developer team can test out the software with a larger audience and iron out the bugs without any real risk.”If people lose their money it’s just a horrible idea,” Hoffman told Business Insider.
Over the last two days, more than 6,000 people have downloaded installed the testnet version of OpenBazaar, Hoffman says, and there’s a new user signing up every two minutes. He says that there haven’t been any major issues so far, and the seven-man developer team hopes to launch the public version of OpenBazaar “some time before the end of the month.”
After that public launch, OpenBazaar will be officially open for business — a place where anyone can, in theory, buy absolutely anything.
The next-generation Etsy
Amir Taaki’s original concept directly positioned itself as a successor to the infamous online drugs market Silk Road: He once told Wired he was “in an arms race to equip the people with the tools needed for the next generation of digital black markets.”
But Hoffman has tried to change the conversation, positioning OpenBazaar as a kind of next-generation Etsy, attractive to users because the lack of central authority taking a cut makes it much cheaper to buy and sell on.
“I use Etsy is because that’s what is primarily considered a market leader in what we know as peer to peer commerce online at the moment,” he previously told me. “I think the decentralised model where ‘take rates’ (the percentage cut the marketplace takes) are eliminated will force the incumbents to have to rethink their strategy for capturing profit from consumers. It will force them to have to think about new ways to provide value-added services rather than just raising fees on customers to make more money.”
That said, he accepts that an uncensorable platform for online commerce will be an attractive prospect to those looking to operate outside of the law — though he distances himself from “misuse” of the platform.
Defending the internet’s dark spaces
Cybersecurity and encryption have been thrust into the US national debate by an ongoing legal battle between Apple and the FBI. The FBI wants Apple to build it software to help it break into an encrypted iPhone that was used by one of the San Bernardino shooters, But Apple refuses, arguing making these tools would be too dangerous.
One of the central questions at stake is whether there should be spaces online — enabled by cryptography — that are outside the reach of the law. Another is whether companies and developers can be forced to develop software against their will.
OpenBazaar is publicly accessible — but its uncensorable nature means it is fundamentally incompatible with calls from James Comey et al to eliminate dark spaces online. It’s no surprise, then, that Brian Hoffman is backing Apple in its fight.
“‘We’re going to make you write some kind of backdoor,'” Hoffman says, paraphrasing the FBI’s argument. “To me, that’s compelled speech. That’s a violation of our rights. We feel pretty securely that the law is on our side, but this Apple case is a landmark case.”
If the FBI were to win, Hoffman is worried about the precedent it would set. “OpenBazaar is vulnerable to the same kind of situation.”