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I've been told that black market websites that have pretty much every drug, guns and all sorts of illegal things for sale don't actually exist on the internet, and I was then told some lengthy explanation as to why they can't get shut down.

I'm talking here about websites such as Silk Road on Tor.

So why can't the government just have these shut down?

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I'm not entirely sure this question is appropriate in its current form. In particular, the word "can't" when applied to the capabilities of a nation state may be somewhat misleading; in almost all cases, a sufficiently powerful nation state possesses the ability (consequences aside) to shut any website down. This question might read better as something more like this: Is it possible for an organization, remotely over the Internet, effectively make accessing some arbitrary website over the Internet impossible or infeasible? If so, how, and what resources would be required? –  Patrick87 Apr 12 '13 at 20:56
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This is a duplicate: security.stackexchange.com/q/24985/12 –  Xander Apr 12 '13 at 22:05
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migrated from cs.stackexchange.com Apr 12 '13 at 21:23

This question came from our site for students, researchers and practitioners of computer science.

marked as duplicate by Gilles, Rory Alsop Apr 12 '13 at 23:43

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2 Answers

There are a few issues:

Resources: You have to have the technical skills to track down these resources, you need to collect evidence, deal with legal issues (judge, subpoenas, chain of evidence), you may have to actual get in and do some trades to make evidence, this may require physical receipt of items (if its all just talk - is it even real? Is it all hearsay? You need to have time, available specialists, and it has to be prioritized with other cases, some of which have a greater chance of success.

Jurisdiction: Even if you manage to track down international criminals, if they are operating across borders there may be jurisdiction issues, you may need to collaborate with various departments (which could be difficult logistically), there may be language issues, etc. International law may also make this difficult - extradition, etc. Is this even a priority in the country where it's going on?

Let's take the simple case of a very amateurish website hosted on some cheap hosting provider. This might be easy to shutdown because its in a clearly identifiable place, and the hosting provider can just turn it off if they want, which they probably would just do if a government asked - your small monthly fee isn't worth having the government hassle them.

However, let's say its hosted in a distributed manner, mirrored all over the world. There is lots of encryption, they use weird code words, a lot of the actual criminal transactions actual take place over email, icq, or something else. They use encryption, they move IPs, they host the servers in countries where the government or the ISPs don't care. It's going to be pretty hard to get access just by stumbling upon such a site. These things are often communities suspicious of outsiders (and suspicious of even their friends). So it may be very hard to prove it's worth turning off and in reality, there is no magic single-point of failure you can just turn off. Even if you took down a website, they could make another one, or use fancy peer-to-peer systems to distribute and encrypt what they are doing.

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If you draw an imperfect analogy to real world, think of "sites" as "neighbourhoods". There are good neighbourhoods, and there are bad neighbourhoods. If a neighbourhood becomes known as "bad," law enforcement may move in and try to clean it up. This may result in some arrests, some convictions, but for the most parts the drug dealers and the junkies will move to another neighbourhood. The same with internet "shady sites" -- when one is shut down, it either opens up elsewhere, or a new one pops up filling its niche. Keeping track of "which is currently the shady site" is extremely difficult and requires massive resources, pretty much for the same reason why police can't patrol all neighbourhoods at all times.

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