Commerce is a cornerstone of human interaction. Throughout history the trade of goods and services has provided opportunities for humans to connect and necessitated methods of communication. Bartering, agreements and contracts have been made possible through verbal, written and visual means. With the exponential growth of the internet, it was inevitable that merchants and private traders would adopt this channel for commercial purposes. The shift of commerce from offline to online has repercussions for human interaction and communication. In the modern economy, commerce involves a long supply chain and multiple agents that affect the production and transport of goods. To take a product from idea to conception to finally reaching purchasers requires first raw materials, then a manufacturer, a distributor, a seller and a customer (with possibly a marketer or two thrown in for good measure). Each step in this process requires individual human beings interacting with one another, especially at the point of sale. Through digital commerce, however, many of the middlemen in the process can be eliminated. Customers can purchase goods directly from the manufacturer with a few clicks or taps without ever (directly) interacting with another human being. To buy a television, for example, would previously have required a person visiting a more generalised retail outlet such as an electronics store, speaking with a sales representative and making the purchase. The retail store would in turn have procured the television from a distributor, who would have acquired it from the manufacturer. Thanks to the internet, however, a prospective buyer can now simply visit the manufacturer’s web page, purchase the television and have it delivered to their door, effectively cutting out most of the traditional commerce chain and with very limited interpersonal communication.
In some ways this method of conducting commercial activities is reminiscent of trade before the advent of mass production. From the days of the ancient Athenians gathered in the Agora, a central square for meetings and business, commerce was typically a highly personal affair. The public marketplace as a central site for commerce has now been re-enabled by the internet through websites like Amazon and eBay. Here, manufacturers and producers can reach customers directly, without requiring an established long chain of suppliers and agents. Though Amazon may be analogous to the Agora, a perhaps better example of how digital commerce affects international relations is the Silk Road. In ancient times, the Silk Road was a 6,000-kilometre trade route connecting Europe and Asia. It not only facilitated commercial trade but also enabled the flow of ideas, and even religions, between cultures. It was in effect a widely dispersed network of traders and outposts through which flowed both goods and information. Importantly, these flows were embodied through personal interaction between those who travelled along the Silk Road.
The ancient Silk Road shares its name with a modern digital counterpart. First established in 2011, Silk Road was an online marketplace that could be accessed and operated using software provided by the ‘Tor network’ in the form of a special web browser that preserves users’ anonymity. This allowed shoppers to make purchases without revealing any personal information, including bank card details, as payments were made in bitcoin – a decentralised digital currency. Vendors operated under pseudonyms. The anonymity aspects of the transaction process differentiate the modern Silk Road from the ancient one, exemplifying the depersonalisation of commerce in the internet era. Silk Road and Tor are also emblematic of the growth of a part of the internet called the ‘dark web’ that can only be accessed by specific software, or specific means such as access passwords. The effect of this in the sphere of international relations is most starkly evident in the police operation that eventually shut down Silk Road. A holding page displayed after the seizure of Silk Road’s website was emblazoned with the crests of a number of US and European law enforcement agencies, bordered by the flags of 13 countries between them speaking 11 languages. The internet has provided a place for shady activities, and the task of combating these has in turn taken on an international scope.