In Greek mythology the Lernaean Hydra was a water monster which grew back two heads for every one which was cut off. A week on from the closure of illegal drugs website Silk Road 2.0, the shady online underworld where it lived is starting to represent an unstoppable Hydra, with each head representing a new store peddling illegal goods.
The immediate aftermath of Silk Road 2.0's closure and arrest of its alleged owner, Blake Benthall, was a scene of fear and confusion as customers questioned whether police now had access to their order histories and delivery addresses. Pleadings on Reddit for help and advice from less experienced users returned little more than sarcasm and ridicule from a confident, even arrogant, band of Silk Road regulars.
As news broke that Benthall had allegedly registered the servers hosting Silk Road 2 in his own name, forums on Reddit and across the dark web filled with astonishment at how such a simple mistake was the key to his downfall. Meanwhile, as customers continued to wonder if recent orders would arrive at their door with a police escort, the Hydra had already grown a new head and Silk Road 3.0 was up and running.
Dark web explained
The dark web is a section of the internet that is not indexed by search engines such as Google, and not easily navigated to using a standard web browser.
Accessing the dark web requires specialised knowledge and software tools. An example of this is content only accessible by using the Tor software and anonymity network, which while protecting privacy, is often associated with illicit activities.
Dread Pirate Roberts The Third
Believed to be a rebranding of the Diabolus Market, launched a month before Silk Road 2 was seized by the FBI, Silk Road 3 (SR3) is headed by the pseudonymous Dread Pirate Roberts (DPR), a name previously used by the alleged owner of the original Silk Road, Ross Ulbricht, and briefly by an unknown leader of its successor.
A message sent by DPR to new users of SR3, also referred to as Silk Road Reloaded, reads: "Welcome to Silk Road Reloaded. We are an anonymous, professional and peaceful marketplace selling all sorts of goods and services. I am honoured to welcome you to our community. There is no judgement, censorship or repercussion here. We are truly free."
In a bid to keep Silk Road's image as clean as that of an illegal online drugs bazaar can be, DPR has banned the sale of fraudulent services, firearms or lethal weapons, child pornography, and "bomb-making, terrorism, explosives guides, or documents capable of causing harm to human life." However, these can all be bought on other dark web sites.
Is Silk Road 3 being run by the FBI?
The FBI claims an undercover agent was involved with the running of SR2 from its inception, and was even paid a salary by the site's owner, known as Defcon, for their contribution to running the site's forums.
The fear of undercover agents patrolling the dark net and talking to potential suspects is shared by many. On one forum, a user called Skizzer warned: "Once again, and this is the last time I'm saying this. You're all being watched, they [law enforcement] are talking to you, they are selling to you."
Given this, what are the chances that SR3 is a honeypot created by the FBI - and even if it is legitimate, can the Silk Road name still be trusted?
Jamie Bartlett, author of The Dark Net, told IBTimes UK: "There were rumours at the very start of SR2 that it was an FBI sting operation and a lot of people didn't use it for that reason, they just thought it was too obvious."
A brand name damaged beyond repair
Speaking just hours before Silk Road 3 was launched, Bartlett added: "I'm not convinced that [SR3] would carry the same sort of brand weight anymore, in the same way the original Silk Road passed on to Silk Road 2, because now there are so many alternatives, why would you bother? I think the brand's name has been sort of ruined, damaged beyond repair, and there are plenty of alternatives, I think 35 other sites.
"It's going to be mildly disruptive for a while, but just as after the original went down and there were three months of mayhem, confusion and paranoia, [the same will happen] and then it'll settle down again."
Will Operation Onymous, the coordinated, multinational police effort which saw the closure of SR2 and 400 other sites on the dark net, scare users away? Bartlett has his doubts. "I think for the dealers the rewards are far too great [not to continue]. I don't think the users will be too put off, especially those who are doing this as a statement, as a political idea."
Politics aside, the potential financial gains can be massive. The FBI claims SR2 generated sales of $8 million (£5m) per month.
Business as Usual?
Despite Silk Road 3 looking much like its predecessor and seemingly featuring many of the same dealers, very few transactions appear to be taking place.
At the time of publication there were around 480 items for sale, a tiny fraction of the 17,000 product listings at the height of SR2.
IBTimes UK could not find a single piece of feedback given on any item, and on its most popular day (9 November) the forum had just 26 registered members online at once. At the time of publication that figure was just three (including IBTimes UK), plus one guest.
But that doesn't mean the dark web has become a less popular place for illegal goods to be bought and sold.
Launched in early 2014, Evolution is now considered the largest dark web market; at the time of publication it had more than 15,000 items for sale, including 11,600 drugs, 540 counterfeit documents such as passports and driving licenses, 213 weapons - including an Uzi submachine gun with ammunition - and 34 listings for laboratory supplies such as chloroform, and a machine capable of manufacturing 3,000 pills per hour.
When Operation Onymous hit on 7 November, Evolution's forums were sent into a panic as users, watching Silk Road and others become property of the FBI, assumed their site would be next. But Evolution remained online, and at the time of publication is fully functional and accepting new users.
The forums are full of rumours discussing how SR2 was shut down, and debates over what username the undercover agent used. But from the monthly raffle - where users win $100 for correctly guessing the value of one bitcoin in a month's time - to discussions on heroin quality, an offer of free Xanex, and tips on keeping anonymous online, it really does feel like business as usual.
A poisonous track to follow
The Lernaean Hydra's blood was so poisonous that even the tracks it left behind were deadly.
Silk Road 3 may never grow to the size and stature of its predecessors, but the growing trail left by the many incarnations of Dread Pirate Roberts and the site itself leaves dark web users - and the police - with an equally toxic path to tread.