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The Strangest Things People Sell on OpenBazaar’s Anarchic Peer-to-peer Marketplace

After OpenBazaar launched in 2016, Forbes described the peer-to-peer marketplace as “an anarchist eBay on acid.” Fortune characterized it as potentially “America’s most dangerous tech startup.”

Two years have passed and OpenBazaar is still up and running– but what’s it like now? Read on to learn more about OpenBazaar and find out what’s for sale in its marketplace.

What is OpenBazaar?

OpenBazaar is a an e-commerce marketplace that connects buyers to sellers directly and securely through a peer-to-peer network. In addition to all manner of goods– from kombucha to rare action figures to goat milk and even drugs– OpenBazaar users can also trade cryptocurrencies.

The decentralized nature of OpenBazaar distinguishes it from its centralized competitors. When you make a transaction using OpenBazaar, all your money gets send directly to the seller. OpenBazaar doesn’t profit at all from the sale. Centralized e-commerce marketplaces like Amazon and eBay charge buyers and sellers fees for using their services. Another benefit: OpenBazaar doesn’t collect its users data and resell it to advertisers.

The most controversial aspect of OpenBazaar is that it is unmoderated. Sellers can’t be kicked off the platform for breaking the rules or for selling illegal goods because there is single entity that has that authority. There are, however, user ratings and an escrow system that helps keep scammers in check.

OpenBazaar’s Origins Story

The seed for the idea of OpenBazaar was planted by the British-Iranian hacktivist Amir Taaki and a team of other developers. Taaki and his colleagues debuted an early version OpenBaazar– then called DarkMarket– in 2014 during a Hackathon in Toronto.

A change of rein

After the Hackathon was over, Taaki began exchanging emails with cybersecurity expert Brian Hoffman, bitcoin developer Sam Patterson and pharmaceutical researcher Washington Sanchez. Taaki eventually agreed to hand over the reins of his project to them.

The rebranding effort

Hoffman, Patterson and Sanchez rebranded DarkMarket to OpenBazaar– a name with less negative connotations. The name change represented a decided attempt to make the market seem more socially acceptable.

According to Wired, in a 2014 blog post on OpenBazaar’s developer forum, Patterson suggested that the company should describe itself as offering “stuff that people wouldn’t disagree with but is technically illegal to sell because of stupid laws,” like unpasteurized milk, radar detectors, and fireworks.

Further development

Shortly after acquiring OpenBazaar, the team received $1 million in venture capital funding during a seed round that was led by Union Square Ventures, Andreessen Horowitz and angel investor William Mougayar.

The OpenBazaar team used that initial funding to develop the platform and make it their own. The desktop version of OpenBazaar has been updated 65 times since 2016. Additional investors provided more funds to help OpenBazaar grow. According to Crunchbase, OpenBazaar has accumulated a total of $4.2 million in venture fund investments.

OpenBazaar 2.0 debuted last year in September. The most notable change was the addition of Tor network-powered privacy features. OpenBazaar co-founder Brian Hoffman explained the significance of the update to Wired:

“Hands-down, privacy and anonymity have been our number one most-requested feature from day one.”

Refined search, a built-in bitcoin wallet and new vendor tools were among the other major updates in the 2.0 release. The latest update– OpenBazaar 2.2.2— improved on OpenBazaar’s new built-in crypto trading features.

How Does OpenBazaar Make Money?

As mentioned above, OpenBazaar doesn’t charge any sort of usage fees. Instead, the OpenBazaar team generates revenue through its partnerships. Co-founder Sam Patterson described OpenBazaar’s business model to Forbes:

“We have a list of several hundred individuals and businesses who, over the past months, have asked to be notified when we go live. So we’ll be starting with them and anyone else who wants to join.”

According to the OpenBazaar website, OpenBazaar’s partners currently include a search engines BazaarBay, BazaarDog and BlockBooth. Additional partners include European e-commerce site Mubiz and virtual private service provider P2P VPS.

Is OpenBazaar the Next Silk Road?

The answer depends on who you ask.

The Silk Road was specifically designed to cater to black market sellers. OpenBazaar’s purveyors, however, describe OpenBazaar as an “agnostic” marketplace that doesn’t favor any type of seller over another or attempt to abide by the laws of any particular locality.

In an interview with Forbes, Hoffman said that OpenBazaar “allows for sale and trade of goods legally in one jurisdiction that may actually be illegal in others but does not intentionally enable users to conduct illegal trade and encourage that..”

Shortly after OpenBazaar’s 2016 launch, Fortune writer S. Kumar suggested that OpenBazaar could “potentially threaten America’s tech industry.” He went on to opine that the “wild and uncontrollable” nature of the decentralized market could be used to enable terrorism. If an attack involving OpenBazaar took place, authorities could launch a crackdown on not only OpenBazaar, but also other similar projects.

Two years have passed and no publicized attacks involving OpenBazaar have occurred so far. A cursory look around the marketplace reveals that most of the items seem to be legal. There are definitely some dark corners in the market, though.

The Stranger Corners of the OpenBazaar Marketplace

Though OpenBazaar doesn’t forbid sellers to list particular types of items, its adult content filter– which is turned on by default– nudges users toward browsing more conventional items. With that being said, some strange and possibly illegal items can be found in the marketplace as well.

At publication, OpenBazaar only had around 10,000 products for sale on the site. Here’s a quick look at the oddest and most risqué items that the marketplace has to offer.

Drugs

The health section of the OpenBazaar app features a plethora of legitimate and questionable health-related products– and quite a few products that have nothing to do with health at all.

A Peruvian torch cacti and wrist wraps appear on the same page as a non-fiction e-book that explains how Apollo made it to the moon:

Source: CoinIQ

Illegal drugs are also available on OpenBazaar. One vendor offers a wide array of controlled substances, ranging from MDMA to Adderall.

Source: CoinIQ

Weapons

In 2016, Forbes writer Thomas Brewster found this non-lethal stun gun flashlight:

Source: Forbes

Currently, there doesn’t appear to be any stun guns for sale on OpenBazaar. One seller, however, has listed a 22-caliber pen gun. The pen gun listing appears right alongside listings for comic books, watches and nerf guns.

Source: CoinIQ

According to The Register, pen guns that fire .22 rifle bullets are all the rage right now in France’s criminal underworld. Hackers that are connected to the mafia are selling the weapons on a variety of underground sites alongside brass knuckles and illegal knives. The majority of this type of black market activity must flow through other anonymous platforms or perhaps through the Tor network, since OpenBazaar doesn’t have many weapons sellers at all.

Subscription service access

Some OpenBazaar sellers specialize in providing discount access Netflix, Steam and other digital entertainment services. Prices for account access range from a few dollars to several hundred dollars. The seller depicted below posted the following description to his “lifetime guaranteed” Netflix ad:

“I am Selling Netflix Account.Unlike other account sellers my accounts are private and not searchable on google. By ordering from me you are guaranteed working non-public accounts. All accounts come with Lifetime Warranty!!! These accounts is Shared so you have no rights to change any accounts detail so if your login stops working I will replace the account for you.”

Source: CoinIQ

Tor network resources

Ebooks, PDF guides and other informational content can also be found on OpenBazaar. Many such guides provide links and information about the Tor anonymity network. Other guides feature topics like “HOW TO EAT FOR FREE IN ANY MCDONALDS WORLDWIDE.”

Source: CoinIQ

Rare and hard-to-find geeky stuff

A large portion of the items for sale on OpenBazaar are rare collectibles. Comic books, vintage video game equipment and tabletop games seem to be popular. Extremely niche– and extremely geeky– products like posters based on patent application schematics and video game themed cosplay props are bought and sold on the site.

Source: CoinIQ

Cryptocurrency exchange services

A number of OpenBazaar vendors specialize in cryptocurrency exchange services. There’s nothing especially strange about that, but some of the vendors post peculiar listings.

Source: CoinIQ

Final Thoughts

This makeup of the OpenBazaar market seems to reflect how real world economies work. After all, every major city has a thriving black market economy. If you don’t know where to look, you probably won’t notice that it exists. The same principle seems to apply to OpenBazaar.

Rather than attempt to enforce a top-down approach to censorship, the designers of OpenBazaar’s interface try to nudge users toward more socially acceptable products. Strange and possibly illegal items are tolerated on OpenBazaar, but those types of goods don’t get the same spotlight as other item types. The adult content filter is enabled by default. A “report listing” feature lets shoppers flag offensive or fraudulent items. Reported items probably get much less spotlight on the site compared to other types of items.

Alex Munkachy

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