Eros.vision is a wonderful concept (or degenerate anarchy, depending on your value-system). They propose a decentralized marketplace for sexworkers and clients to find each other.
According to their website, their software will run on ZeroNet over TOR. ZeroNet serves webpages in a decentralized, peer-to-peer fashion (unlike the standard web, which serves them from a central server). TOR anonymizes the connections, making it hard for anyone (even well-resourced organizations like the NSA) to trace who is sending what. Payments are to be settled in Ethereum, a Bitcoin-like cryptocurrency.
Eros.vision would supersede such sites as Backpage.com and MyRedBook.com, which sexworkers used to find work. Like The Silk Road and other centralized drug marketplaces, these sites were taken down by law enforcement. Eros.vision would not be vulnerable to takedowns, as it is decentralized, so there is no operator to arrest, and no servers to seize.
They are currently in the middle of an Initial Coin Offering (ICO), selling tokens on the platform with a goal to raise $5 million for the project.
I was enthusiastic about the vision at first, and still am, but as I researched this article, red flags showed up.
The whitepaper controversy
I downloaded this document from the eros.vision website on July 3. The website, at that time, claimed that it was Eros’s whitepaper. In fact, as someone pointed out on Reddit, it is virtually identical to this academic paper, published by MIT researchers in 2016.
It is worth skimming the two PDFs linked in the previous paragraph, so you can see how the so-called whitepaper is essentially copied-and-pasted from the 2016 paper. In several sentences, they simply replace the word “Beaver” (the decentralized reputation system the MIT researchers proposed) with “Eros”. For example:
In this paper, we introduce a formal model for a decentralized anonymous marketplace (DAM), and design Beaver, a Sybil-resistant DAM.
In this paper, we introduce a formal model for a decetralized anonymous marketplace (DAM), and design Eros, a Sybil-resistant DAM.
Beaver uses existing blockchains and anonymous payment schemes, such as Zerocash, to instantiate a DAM.
Eros uses existing blockchains and anonymous payment schemes, such as Zerocash, to instantiate a DAM.
Contradicting the claim that Eros supports “anonymous payment schemes, such as Zerocash”, developer Michael O’Brien told me by email that the platform will only support payments in Ether and the native Eros tokens.
Here are screenshots of the MIT paper and the so-called Eros whitepaper, with some of the plagiarism highlighted:
The title of the first PDF, the one that Eros claimed as their whitepaper, is ‘Microsoft Word – Beaver.docx’. This is consistent with the developers opening the MIT paper in Microsoft Word, replacing occurrences of ‘Beaver’ with ‘Eros’, making a few other little changes like adding the introductory paragraph, and exporting it as a PDF, but forgetting to change the title. As you can see from the screenshots, even the font and formatting are the same.
Since the plagiarism was pointed out on Reddit, the PDF has been taken down and they have no whitepaper on their site.
When I asked about this controversy, Michael O’Brien, apparently the CEO of Eros, told me, “We addressed the whitepaper controversy… in our last blog post“. The blog post says, “We initially used several chunks of the original MIT publication… without making sure to properly credit the original authors for each of these references…. Upon notification that it wouldn’t be considered to be a fair move towards the researchers, we promptly modified the link on our website, and as you can see right now, full credits are given to the MIT team for the excellent reputation system they came up with”.
To say that they used “several chunks” is an understatement; they really copied a 15-page document in whole cloth. And to say that they posted their document “without making sure to properly credit the original authors” is disingenuous; it is an attempt to pass the plagiarism off as an oversight. Removing the names of the original authors, and replacing them with their own, and repeatedly replacing the word ‘Beaver’ with ‘Eros’, is deliberate and conscious deception, not oversight.
The blog post goes on to say that the Beaver reputation system, “will represent one of Eros’ three major components alongside our Zeronet-powered decentralized hosting architecture and the autonomous listing+settlements made possible by Ethereum.” This is quite a different claim from saying that Beaver’s whitepaper is Eros’s whitepaper. If they had said from the start that Eros is built on Beaver, ZeroNet, and Ethereum, they would have some credibility.
Other red flags
The Eros.vision website lists only two developers, Michael O’Brien and Kevin Yang. This is a rather small team to develop a major product. Michael O’Brien is identified by a LinkedIn page, and Kevin Yang by a GitHub page. The GitHub page shows next to no activity, and what little code there is has nothing to do with Eros.
Two people, with no code, no reputation, and no credibility, all vision, are asking for $5 million.
When I asked about the lack of code, Michael O’Brien (or the person going by that name online) told me, “Closed source release in late August, and then OS release in September”.
It is worth asking the question: Are Michael O’Brien and Kevin Yang even real people? If Eros.vision is a scam, as many on social media believe it is, and with good reason, then they may be pseudonyms designed to hide the identities of the fraudsters, who, at the time of publication, have raised more than $650,000. It is probable that a $5 million scam is currently underway, and is succeeding.
The owner of the Eros.vision domain is anonymous. This is not so incriminating – many people use anonymizers to register domains – but it is consistent with the narrative that Eros.vision is a scam and Michael O’Brien and Kevin Yang are fake identities.
I would also point out that $5 million is a lot to ask for in a weeklong ICO; OpenBazaar, a good, real decentralized marketplace with a working product and a wonderful team, raised $4 million over 18 months, and are admirably refusing further money.
The press section of their website is as questionable as the team section. It lists four outlets that have mentioned them. Two – 4chan and Hacker News – are platforms to which anyone can submit anything. Another – dapp.tech – featured eros.vision only through a paid banner ad. Bitcoinist did cover them, but it is a 216-word article with a typo in the headline.
The vision is good
None of this is proof-positive that Eros.vision is a scam, or a junk ICO. It’s proof-positive that they are dishonest people, and circumstantial evidence that it’s a scam. They are asking for $5 million up-front with absolutely no product to show for it, with their credibility in tatters from plagiarism, and it would be idiotic to hand them your money.
But, regardless, the Eros vision is a very good one. If they don’t do it, someone else should.
Darkweb markets changed the drug trade for the better. They allowed users to buy illegal drugs with a lower risk of violence, from the comfort of their mom’s basement. It wasn’t just the move from meatspace to cyberspace – it was the reputation system that was the real game-changer. It is difficult for someone buying illegal drugs on the street to know the chemical constituents of the goods they buy. Impurities are common, sometimes very dangerous impurities. ecstasydata.org shows that ecstasy pills from the street very often contain no ecstasy at all. In an online marketplace with reviews and a reputation system, customers can get reviews from other customers, some of whom have the means to analyze the chemistry of the drugs.
Between reviews, testing, reputation systems, and the simple safety of your own home, darkweb drug markets unquestionably reduce the damage done by the illegal drug industry. It’s about harm reduction. Can they do the same for the illegal sex industry?
Backpage.com was a (clearnet, not darknet) site, similar to Craigslist, where sexworkers listed their services. This allowed sexworkers to find work without going to the street. Backpage came under political fire from both major parties in the United States, and shut down in Jan 2017, after its CEO, Carl Ferrer, was charged with felony pimping.
It is extremely noteworthy that the people who law enforcement claims to protect – the workers themselves – are not in favor of these actions. The Sex Workers Outreach Project in Sacramento found that 18% of workers they interviewed were forced back to the street by the closure of MyRedBook.com. After the shutdown, one sexworker commented that having an online platform is “absolutely vital“. Decentralization, of the sort allegedly offered by Eros.vision, would defend workers against these takedowns. A swarm of people passing data peer-to-peer, especially on the TOR darkweb, is untakedownable.
I spoke with Siouxsie Q James, sexworker, writer, and Director of Policy and Industry Relations for the Free Speech Coalition (the trade association of the adult industry). She agreed that online platforms can play a role in harm reduction, telling me, “Having online platforms that allow sex workers to share information that keeps them safe is crucial.” She went on to complain about the problem of censorship on centralized platforms, saying, “but that is increasingly difficult as social media platforms have been incredibly unwelcoming to sex workers.” Decentralized platforms, of course, have no gatekeepers. No one is in a position to be so unwelcoming.
Cryptocurrency also addresses a real problem faced by sexworkers. Siouxsie Q has spoken out before about payment processors putting sexworkers at risk by refusing to process their payments. We all know that cryptocurrency payments, which cannot be blocked by any central authority, are the solution to this.
Siouxsie Q welcomes online platforms with reputation systems. She told me that platforms like Backpage and MyRedBook helped workers assess their clients before meeting them, “There are also bad date lists, work verification, and more. Everyone’s screening process is different.”
However, she warns against over-reliance on online reputation systems, saying that the real problem is that sexworkers are so stigmatized that they are seen outside of the protection of the law, as wolf’s heads. She told me, “Online advertising doesn’t affect our inability to access justice when we are the victim of a crime, but the time and space it puts between ourselves and the client gives us important barriers to evaluate the situation before we potentially put ourselves in harm’s way.”
Picture from Wikimedia Commons.