Originally posted here
The World Wide Agora: a proposal
by Robbie Revenant
I had originally considered entitling this article “iAgora”, in parody of Apple’s endless stream of “i”-products, but after saying it aloud, judiciously decided against it.
Thus, “The World Wide Agora”: a more descriptive—though certainly less humorous—title. This is the topic of my article; however, before I get to the meat of it I would like to justify it. So let me start with the bones.
There seems to be some debate going on—a schism of sorts—between those who propose that our practice of radical free-market left-libertarian anarchism (agorism) be done in the open, and those who counsel that it be done in secret. Unquestionably, both arguments have merit.
The open-door-agorists (if I may call them that) argue that by self-identifying they encourage others to learn about agorism and join the underground free-market, to their benefit and the state’s detriment. The closed-door-agorists argue that antagonizing the system and operating out in the open will only lead to fines, incarceration, and the eventual death of the movement. Furthermore, it may discourage practitioners from participating fully out of fear of reprisal from the state. 
As I see it, this is a conflict between the two main problems agorists face when attempting to practice what they preach. How do buyers and sellers find each other? And how do they trade black- or grey-market commodities without being caught? The first requires that agorists be open and public about what they do and what they are offering. The second requires that they be clandestine and secretive. How do we resolve this seemly unresolvable dilemma?
Let’s first consider the case of a small, rather homogeneous, agorist community. Suppose I make widgets. These widgets could be anything. They could be something the government deems impermissible for us to own or sell (drugs, weapons, happy meal toys, etc.). Or it could be something heavily regulated. Or it could be that neither party wants to pay taxes on these items. Maybe we just value our privacy and don’t want the government snooping on our purchases—what right do they have to know you buy widgets! Maybe they are a white-market item, but because I buy the component parts on the black-market and then sell there, I am able to keep costs down and provide a perfectly legal product at a price that is superbly lower than the same item under government-scrutiny (due to the fact that I’m avoiding sales tax, income-tax, tariffs, and a host of licensing fees, oversight, and other regulation in the production of my wonderful widgets).
In short, it doesn’t matter if it’s a hand-grenade or a hat-rack. I’ve got it; you want it; and we both agree on a price. Now, in our little local agorist community such a transaction is quite feasible. We can assume that every agorist knows every agorist (or that someone knows someone who knows someone, etc.). The information problem is no problem at all. Buyers can easily find sellers. Sellers can easily find buyers.
So too, the problem of making the transaction without being apprehended by the police is of little concern. Yes, some Nosy Nancy could observe and report us (and this is becoming a growing threat given the recent drive to deputize the public into a national Snitch-Corps). However, this can easily be circumvented by making the transaction discreetly in a secure location. If Nancy doesn’t “see something”, Nancy won’t “say something”. (Thank you, Janet Nazi-tano!)
Now, this idyllic community of agorists has several shortcomings. The first is that all our buying and selling options are restricted to what is local, thus limiting our options. The second, of course, is that such communities are still very rare. So let us move on to the real world, the one in which agorists are scattered across the country—nay, the world.
Now suppose I live in Tucson. And you live in Keene. We suddenly have some major problems arise. You really want a widget, but how do you know I sell widgets? One simply can’t put up a website that says, “Buy Bob’s Bazookas, Basement Bargain Prices!!“. That will no doubt attract significant unwanted attention, not to mention a lengthy jail sentence. You couldn’t even sell home-made jam without the FDA shutting you down, or the IRS seizing your bank accounts and threatening imprisonment.
What’s an agorist to do? Well, here is my vision (and it’s not at all revolutionary, merely the next logical step). You log onto the WWA. Your account has a profile. It may be anonymous, containing no pertinent data about the real-life you; or it may contain enough information to identify you as, well, you. It’s your choice.
Others would also have profiles on the WWA and be able to interact on a minimal level (no stalkerish Facebook-like feeds here). You would have a credential-rating based on an algorithm that takes into account who has verified that they know you and to what degree. Having 2 people certify that they know you in person would result in a higher credential-rating than 20 people who just know you from some other virtual meeting-place. The algorithm could also take into account the “connectedness/distance” from a “trusted” or known agorist (the agorist version of an Erdös-number). The idea is to give others a sense of how well they can trust this person, who may very well be anonymous, and to weed out law-enforcement. Anyone would be able to see your credential-rating.
The WWA, in its complete form, would have 3 sections: the Market, the Forums, and the Lyceum. (Although it’s the Market that is the heart of the matter, since the Forums and Lyceum already exist in some form or another elsewhere on the web.)
Entering the Market, you see something very akin to Amazon.com or other online stores. There would be a searchable database of items for sale by third-parties. Any user can set up a shop if they have a good or service to sell. Much like Amazon’s third-party sellers, they would each have a seller-rating, letting potential buyers gauge whether or not to trust a particular seller. Likewise, each user would have a buyer-rating, although only potential sellers when contacted by a buyer would be able to see his rating. This is to protect the buyer’s privacy. (No one need know how many times you’ve made purchases or trades in the marketplace, or at all!)
Communication in the WWA is done via PGP-like encrypted messages between buyer and seller, passed via secure http (and perhaps even a third layer of encryption) from seller to server to buyer and back again. The servers and mirrors for the WWA would only keep such messages long enough to pass them to the client (buyer or seller). In this way, it acts like a mail-server in which email is deleted off the server when read. The buyer and seller would, of course, have a record of these messages on their local machines, which could be purged also for security purposes if necessary. Notice that even the server hosts cannot read these encrypted messages, nor do they persist on them. These are private conversations between buyer and seller alone!
Such messages would allow buyers to place orders, work out the details of custom orders, make inquiries, and arrange payment (trade, cash, credit, gold, silver, BitCoin, money held in escrow by a trusted third party until the transaction was completed, etc.)—all beyond the scrutiny of prying eyes.
Digital-signatures would be used to verify that an agreement had been reached. This would provide some measure of accountability in the event of a dispute. Both buyers and sellers could be removed for fraud or multiple failures to live up to their contracts. The rating system would have to suffice at first. Later, trusted arbitration groups may pop up to which both sides would voluntarily present their unencrypted agreement, and any other evidence that one lived up to the agreement and the other did not. The WWA would then abide by the ruling of the arbiter and act accordingly on the buyer’s or seller’s account.
Sellers would be permitted to sell anything that did not violate the NAP. Anything that does (stolen goods, slaves, etc.) would be removed and the seller banned.
The Forums would allow users to communicate at length on various topics in the usual threaded conversation format. Various discussions could be completely open, or restricted to certain users, or restricted to users that meet a certain credential threshold. In this way, you could start a conversation on a topic and have anyone join in, just a few associates, or anyone who is likely to be an actual practicing agorist and not a cop.
The Forums would work differently than most you may have encountered. Nothing would reside on the server for very long in restricted rooms. They would only persist long enough to pass to the other users in the conversation. In fact, it may be possible to design it in a strict peer-to-peer fashion, with the server functioning only to let others in the conversation know who has what pieces of the thread available for download. As with all messages in the WWA, the thread would be encrypted with a PGP-like session key—in this case, unique to the participants and the thread. Only participants in the thread would be able to read it. Even the server hosts and mirrors would not have access to this information.
The Lyceum would be an open area where more theoretical discussions about the history of economic and political thought, as well as the development and current state of agorism could be taught. Unlike the forums, this area would be directed by lecturers familiar with agorism and the particular topic at hand.
The World Wide Agora would then be a kind of super-discreet hybridization of Amazon.com, Facebook, and an online university. It would have fewer bells-and-whistles to be sure; but it would, in turn, make protecting your privacy it’s highest concern. This is the reason for all of the encryption and non-persistence of data—to secure the privacy of participants in the agora should the servers be compromised by law-enforcement.
Note that some agorists could choose to remain completely anonymous. Others could self-identify, tying their profiles to their real-world persona. They could thus proclaim to be agorists, promote freedom of the individual and the starvation of the state, help educate others, and at the same time, their actual transactions would be secure from scrutiny. We would have achieved openness without sacrificing privacy.
There would also be other less tangible benefits to having a secure-but-open electronic marketplace. We could get an instant summary of the size and scope of the underground market. If people begin to realize that hundreds, then thousands, then millions of their fellow citizens are participating in counter-economics, they may be more inclined to follow suit. The social-stigma of the counter-economy will wash away and the agora will thrive!
*Technical Note: This is merely a call to action. I confess that I do not personally possess the requisite knowledge to make such a system work. My programming knowledge is in C, C++, Java, and high-level packages like MATLAB. I know nothing about secure PHP or MySQL programming. There is certainly incentive to create the WWA, though. Aside from helping out the movement (promoting a genuinely free market), one could make a nice profit by either charging a small fee for each transaction (which might not be desirable due to privacy concerns), or by charging sellers a fee for setting up shop (much like charging a fee for a booth at a swap meet). Either way, much work would need to be done on a design level first. What I have outlined is merely a rough sketch. Great care would need to be taken to design the protocols necessary to ensure that the three top priorities of such a system would be met: Privacy, Privacy, Privacy!
So, to any enterprising agorist computer-geeks out there: Go to it!
Agora! Anarchy! Action!