OpenBazaar announced during February 2017 that the long-awaited feature to improve anonymity and privacy for vendors and buyers was here, the code which would enable Tor anonymity was ready, and Tor would finally be integrated into the decentralized online marketplace. “Tor has always been the most requested feature by far,” OpenBazaar developer Chris Pacia said.
OpenBazaar is an online marketplace entirely new and different from e-commerce sites like eBay, Amazon, or Alibaba. It is open-source software and was created to be a fully decentralized, anonymous, and resistant to censorship and regulation. It is touted as the “next generation of uncensored trade” with its key focus on decentralization and privacy.
There is no website, no central server, the software opens a p2p application on the user’s computer and connects merchants and buyers directly. The preferred payment method used on OpenBazaar is also decentralized; bitcoin. Payments for purchases can be made directly to the merchant or buyers can elect to use a moderator and hold the payment in secure escrow until the item is received.
OpenBazaar’s goal is to be a tool to allow people to trade in an open market. “An open market is an economic system with no barriers to free market activity. An open market is characterized by the absence of tariffs, taxes, licensing requirements, subsidies, unionization and any other regulations or practices that interfere with the natural functioning of the free market. Anyone can participate in an open market; there may be competitive barriers to entry, but there are no regulatory barriers to entry.”
The prototype for OpenBazaar was called DarkMarket and was originally developed by Amir Taaki with a group of developers from Airbitz. Taaki is an avid anarchist, and DarkMarket emerged as a proof of concept in response to the seizure of Silk Road in October 2013. Its developers abandoned DarkMarket but Brian Hoffman, OB1 CEO, forked the project and began developing it as OpenBazaar, setting their ambitions high, to compete with the internet’s biggest retailers. As a testament to Hoffman’s success, OB1 Company was given the nod in a Bloomberg article published on March 6, entitled “These Are the 50 Most Promising Startups You’ve Never Heard Of.”
Anonymity was always an important ingredient which makes up the overall concept of OpenBazaar, so why did they wait almost a year after the first release (in April 2016) to add support for Tor? Hoffman explains this in a March 2016 interview, “We’ve basically deferred it to a little bit later in the development process. This, we hope, will give us time to establish a baseline of nodes on the network and liquidity of items without overwhelming it with just darknet items.”
In a Tor-protected, anonymous market which cannot be censored, it is expected that Dark Net vendors will start to build shops and list illegal products on OpenBazaar. They will be all mixed up with standard vendors selling legal items. How this experiment will turn out remains to be seen. The question of whether open anonymous online markets are only tools that allow for people to trade uninhibited, or if they contribute to promoting criminal activity is something that should be researched and clarified.
On Tor integration, Pacia commented, “I’m happy we got it merged, but there’s still more to do. At some point, we want to have a security audit for both Openbazaar and IPFS. Until we do that I wouldn’t recommend people using it for anything other than testing. Going forward there’s still a few more features to implement in the daemon and a bunch of tests to write. And most of the features need to be incorporated into the UI.”
OpenBazaar, downloaded over 400,000 times, has 10,000 online listings from 300 vendors, and has been bolstered by a $4 million in investment from VC’s including William Mougayar, Union Square Ventures, and Andreessen Horowitz.