1 November 2017

Can trust exist in a world without law enforcement?

Trust is an essential part of buying something from someone online. Is the advertisement correct? Will the product actually be sent once you've paid? And is it really 'as good as new'? Luckily, you can always go to the police if someone deceives or swindles you. But what would happen if we didn't have law enforcement? Would we still trust each other enough to arrange transactions like this? Sociologists from Utrecht University accessed the unregulated dark web to analyse the transactions made there.

Dark web

Trust and cooperation were the last things that sociologist Wojtek Przepiorka had expected to find on a medium like the dark web, which is made up of inaccessible websites, which cannot be found directly via search engines. “The dark web operates completely outside the legal system. Not only do you forfeit any right to back-up from the police, but everything on the dark web is totally anonymous. Ingredients that would seem to rule out trust and cooperation. At least that’s what we thought.”

Reputation can still be the key to trusting others, even in the absence of law enforcement and in total anonymity

Reputation is the key

The researchers from Utrecht found plenty of successful transactions on the dark web. So why were they able to identify trust and cooperation on this market that trades shady products and services? Przepiorka: “It operates on a reputation system like the one used on eBay, for example. Prospective buyers read reviews left by other buyers to see if a vendor is reliable. The better the reviews, the faster the vendor sells his/her products. Our analysis shows that, even without law enforcement and in complete anonymity, reputation can still be the key to trusting another person.”

Journal publication

Wojtek Przepiorka and his colleagues Lukas Norbutas and Rense Corten wrote an article on the subject entitled Order without Law: Reputation Promotes. Cooperation in a crypto-market for Illegal Drugs. The article was recently published in the academic journal European Sociological Review. The full article is available from the press information office.

More information

Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences press information, +31 (0)30 253 4027, r.a.b.vanveen@uu.nl