- - Sunday, April 26, 2015

Sometimes the news sounds like science fiction by Ray Bradbury. We’ve been asked by a high government official, lately in charge of the State Department, to believe that certain of her emails reside in a black hole in cyberspace. Two scientists — computer geeks, anyway — are working on a computer program to bring a dead man back as a virtual live man for a virtual conversation.

And now for something entirely real: A robot has been arrested for selling drugs. A robot. A moving conglomeration of bits and bolts, conceived and fashioned by flesh and blood men. The good news for the robot (and his handlers) is that it (he? she?) has been “released” from custody. The terms of release, whether on probation or in house arrest, was not made public, though perhaps it was to other robots.

At the time of the crime last winter, “Random Darknet Shopper,” the robot’s actual name, had a $100 weekly budget, in bitcoin, that enabled it to purchase a hit of Ecstasy, a Hungarian passport and a baseball cap. The Swiss art group, !Mediengruppe Bitnik, set up the “automated online shopping bot” to explore the “dark web” — a part of the Internet that is said to be hidden and hard to trace. It cannot be found through the usual Internet search engines.

The robot’s cyber adventure naturally brings to mind Hillary Clinton’s missing emails, and the Clinton not-so-magnificent obsession with money. Random Darknet Shopper deals only in bitcoin, a currency of wobbly reputation, like a wooden nickel.

Every week, with a new allowance of bitcoins, Random Darknet Shopper went on random shopping sprees. Although Swiss police were able to “arrest” the robot — primarily for the Ecstasy — Nike trainers, cigarettes and other illegal items were part of the stash, purchased from Agora, the dark web’s online purchasing marketplace and delivered to a Swiss art gallery in St. Gallen where it was supposed to be part of an exhibit called “The Darknet: From Memes to Onionland.”

Then the law backed down. “In the order for withdrawal of prosecution, the public prosecutor states that the possession of Ecstasy was indeed a reasonable means for the purpose of sparking public debate about questions related to the exhibition.”

Thomas Hansjakob, a spokesman for the Swiss St. Gallen police, told CNBC, “We decided the Ecstasy that is in this presentation was safe and nobody could take it away. Bitnik never intended to sell it or consume it so we didn’t punish them.”

Random Darknet Shopper’s handlers describe the original seizure of the robot as “unjustified intervention into the freedom of art.” Carmen Weisskopf and Domagoj Smoljo, two artists, celebrated its release. “We as well as the Random Darknet Shopper have been cleared of all charges. !Mediengruppe Bitnik said in a fit of excited bloggery, “This is a great day for the ‘bot, for us and for freedom of art!” And, apparently, for exclamation points.

Mr. Smoljo told the Guardian newspaper that they were advised that although the computer had purchased the drugs itself, they were the legal owners of the drugs as they had executed the code behind the software.

If the case raises questions about automatic shopping robots, the darknet and the state of untraceable cyber transactions, it also illustrates how a society more in control of its Internet use and its currency might behave better. According to CNET, a tech site that describes itself as “the world’s leader in tech product reviews, news, prices, videos, forums, how-tos and more,” Random Darknet Shopper was “a mystery shopper — a true mystery shopper.”

But mysteries rarely remain mysteries forever. We suggest sending all errant robots to the woodshed and paying closer attention to what their human prototypes are up to, too.

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