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Many follow the Silk Road trail

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Amberleigh Jack embraces the dark side to investigate hidden and illicit drug marketplaces online. What she finds is both predictable and surprising, with potential learnings for those concerned about harm reduction.

Court notice seizing silk road website

There are currently 54,361 drugs and chemicals for sale on AlphaBay. It’s one of the well-known online marketplaces accessible through the DarkNet – but it’s not one of the four biggest. Cannabis and hashish are popular, with 17,078 listings. Opioids and prescription medications are next, with 4,290 and 3,274 active listings respectively. I got into the DarkNet for a quick look. It’s a different world. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s fascinating and hard to leave.

DarkApollo is one of the active vendors, working primarily with heroin and cocaine. His 100 percent positive feedback suggests the description of “high cut #4 Afghan heroin” is accurate. He sells a gram for US$210. In the user profile, DarkApollo promises “exceptional service all year round”. His shipping is a bit slow, and his cocaine seems lesser quality. It’s what’s resulted in his five ‘neutral’ feedback comments. In the past 12 months, DarkApollo has made 212 sales.

Similar to Silk Road – shut down by the US Federal Government in 2013 – AlphaBay is a marketplace with similarities to Trade Me. Users can rate on product quality and vendor professionalism. There’s also an active forum discussing trustworthy (or not) vendors and safe drug use among other things. Once you’re in, the DarkNet is incredibly easy to find and participate in. You need an email address to register, but it doesn’t have to be yours. You’re given access codes and phrases to remember. If you forget them, you have to start again. I had to create three new accounts before taking the time to note everything down.

Europe and the USA were the most popular shipping destinations, but I found three New Zealand-based vendors shipping domestically. They were selling morphine, cannabis, MDMA and heroin.

The DarkNet exists beyond the general ‘surface web’, allowing users to be completely anonymous online. This is where Edward Snowden shared information with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald. It’s how users in countries such as China can access blocked sites like Facebook. It has its own version of Facebook. It’s called Blackbook (think fewer cat pictures, more naked ones). Where pro-anorexia and neo-Nazi sites are shut down regularly on the surface web, here they are free to thrive. It’s also a place where information and products you may have been curious about can be found, purchased and openly discussed – be they legal or not.

There’s a lot of good on the DarkNet, but the media tend to focus on the bad. It’s what sells, after all. As one Independent Business Times article put it, “To quote Obi-Wan Kenobi: You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious.”

What is the future of DarkNet marketplaces, and will the FBI ever manage to shut them down completely? Perhaps more importantly, given theories over the ethical aspect of online drug trading, should they? Or is this the new direction we should be heading?

One person who has spent a significant time doing searching through the DarkNet is Tim Bingham. He’s a researcher whose knowledge of online drug marketplaces saw him giving evidence at the Ross Ulbricht Silk Road trial. Having spent his time primarily researching drug use and harm reduction, he became fascinated with the online market – and the safety and user rating aspect. Now he spends his time researching these marketplaces and talking to the users, vendors and owners of the sites to better understand emerging trends. He believes the media fear mongering is ultimately what led people to Silk Road and the DarkNet in the first place.

“[Silk Road] didn’t need to market itself because the media did it. Suddenly everyone got on the bandwagon,” he says. Very quickly, Bingham suggests, the popularity of Silk Road went from a small group of users to worldwide.

To Runa Sandvik, the importance of online anonymity is far more important than being able to sell drugs, however. The security and IT expert was one of the developers for the Tor Project, consisting largely of volunteers, which allows users to browse anonymously. These days, she’s a tech contributor at Forbes.

The ability to use blocked sites online in countries like China and the ability for journalists to research anonymously far outweighs the small number of illegal sites, she says.

“It would be unfortunate if someone at the New York Times was researching [hacking activist group] Anonymous and the owners of the servers got ‘journalist@ newyorktimes.com’,” she laughs.

She thinks fear of the DarkNet is simply a fear of the unknown driven by the media portrayal of a world of crime and drugs.

“Tor does make it more challenging for law enforcement. They’re used to having an IP address they can track, but with Tor, they don’t get that. I think making an example of all the bad stuff you find on the DarkNet is the quickest way to get people’s attention.”

The implications of Ulbricht’s trial, and the questions surrounding it, seem to have a far wider reach than simply the future of online drug trading. And perhaps, as filmmaker Alex Winter points out, a far more important one.

“Ross’s case was about privacy. It had nothing to do with the DarkNet but with how Silk Road was seized by the government… Digital material and belongings are slippery because they seem to be not that important. It’s a hard drive. But these days, your whole life is on that thing. So essentially, what they’re doing is breaking into your house and taking everything in your house, everything in your file cabinets and everything on your computer without a warrant.”

For Winter, the idea of online anonymity and privacy has always been important. His fascination with the idea began after his role as Bill in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Overwhelmed by fame, he found himself drawn towards online privacy and anonymity. This led to his making the 2015 documentary Deep Web, which followed Silk Road and the Ulbricht case through to his conviction.

And, it would seem, the potentially illegal seizure that led to Ulbricht’s arrest has done little to stop the online marketplaces. If anything, they’re growing. It’s difficult to gauge exactly how many marketplaces are currently active. The simple act of searching on Tor for sites is difficult enough – that’s kind of the point – and existing links become dead as quickly as new ones become active. Bingham says it will simply keep growing.

“I suppose [Ulbricht’s conviction] made the community stronger. I think people are constantly learning from those mistake,” he says, adding that new technology is constantly being evolved to make shutdowns and arrests more difficult.

“Basically, all it’s done is disperse the market. Take out the big dealer, and suddenly 10 more appear.”

However, he does theorise that, following the Ulbricht conviction, a likely scenario would be more decentralised marketplaces. In other words, rather than a few sites where vendors and consumers meet to trade, vendors would simply set up their own private sites. This would make it far more difficult for law enforcement to cease the online market and, perhaps more importantly, more difficult for researchers like Bingham to follow drug trends and find information relating to harm reduction.

The more I delve into the world of the DarkNet, the more one thing becomes increasingly clear. Despite shut-down attempts by law enforcement and the increasing media fear mongering, DarkNet marketplaces are likely among the safest and most ethical places for buying and selling drugs. There are a number of reasons for this. For a start, active forums on the sites allow users to find and provide information about drug safety and dosage. Secondly, the ability for consumers to peer review vendors through a feedback system makes the marketplace drug-based. Thirdly, the sites cut out the middleman, leaving little room for the intimidation, violence and petty crime that comes with street dealing.

Winter knows a thing or two about drug abuse. He’s watched friends die from heroin overdoses, and he works in his own time with drug-affected youth in Los Angeles. What surprised him most while researching and filming Deep Web was the ethics behind the trading. “If you are going to use heroin, the vendor you are talking to is going to vet you before selling to you and walk you through how to use clean needles and be safe. To the average person, that sounds like you’re handing a gun to the person and showing them how to spin the wheel, but to those of us with any history in drug recovery, that’s really important and it does matter.”

Silk Road was set up with forums where users could safely discuss drug use and ask questions without any fear of stigma or consequence. Bingham also agrees there was a huge ethical aspect to Silk Road and, consequently, with the sites that have emerged following its demise. He tells me the message from the sites and vendors was basically that they wanted users to be as safe as possible.

“On these sites, there tends to be higher quality and purity and fewer cutting agents. I was really taken by the recovery and community aspect of Silk Road,” he says.

“This is real-life stuff. It’s unpalatable to the average citizen. Part of the problem with drug recovery is it’s like the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about.

“But Silk Road was run with a philosophy of reducing harm, of creating community, of being there for the people that were on the marketplace. Does it mean every single person was using it that way? Of course not.”

This, though, is where the ability to rate vendors comes into play.

“Because of the peer-review system, if you were selling bad drugs or screwing people over, you were found out and booted off the site. If those rules are fundamentally more community-based, well then of course that site’s going to be driven towards a more community based marketplace.”

Sandvik agrees and recalls that the main component of Ulbricht’s defence was the safety issue with Silk Road. “Any vendor had to establish a reputation,” she says.

“The forums were full of discussions on how to safely use drugs. People who want to use drugs will do so regardless, so why not provide them with a safe way of doing it? That’s what the debate has been about for years.”

Jamie Bartlett, a UK journalist and director of the Centre for Analysis of Social Media, found himself deep in the world of hidden and illicit drug marketplaces when researching his book The Dark Net. Bartlett was mostly interested in human behaviour when anonymity is guaranteed. What he found with the drug marketplaces was more of a community spirit than he expected. “There is a lot of effort to keep the market functioning with reputation management – a lot more than I thought” he says.

It’s not all rosy on the DarkNet though. It never will be when people gather to trade illegally. Bartlett emphasises there are many scammers on the sites. “There’s a lot of people who are professional, hard core drug dealers who really couldn’t care less about how other people take drugs. They just want to sell as much as possible. I think it’s more accurate to say it’s much more varied than you’d expect.”

Ultimately, the question of whether DarkNet sites could become a new model for drug laws and harm reduction remains. And it seems an idea worth considering. After all, people will use drugs if they want or need to. As Winter points out, “You can’t just say to an addict, ‘Well, just don’t do it’. It doesn’t work that way.”

So in the meantime, logic dictates that more education around safer use is the best way forward.

 “The end game is to get people help, right? And it sounds counter-intuitive that a place that sells you heroin through the mail could be getting you help.”

But it’s the community aspect and the fact that consumers aren’t accessing unknown dealers on unsafe streets that help make these sites safe. Bartlett poses a similar theory.

“It’s definitely safer I think. But more importantly is it’s a better consumer experience. There’s more choice. You can trust more in the quality of the products. But for some people, there’s still going to be big risks. You can still be sent something awful.”

He suggests that, while it’s safer than street trading, online trading means people have access to drugs they may not have found otherwise. This, according to Bartlett, is where the real risk lies.

There’s little doubt that the DarkNet is here to stay, and while it’s a giant headache for the feds, Winter has a more optimistic view of the future.

“I think we will begin to see online services that help regulate drug markets, and we can begin to decriminalise drugs and start to roll back in a more measured way, because obviously Silk Road was anything but measured.”

Bingham agrees that the DarkNet is here to stay.

“Once they’re there, there’s no way they’ll be shut down. I think we’ll see the larger marketplaces in the next few years dispersing into smaller places with much more specialised vendors or people having their own vendor sites.

He does believe, however, that changes can be made to how the sites are regulated and treated, suggesting harm-reduction organisations need to start actively using the sites to provide information. In an ideal world, he says, this would pave the way towards decriminalising and better regulating these sites.

To Winter, there’s no doubt about the DarkNet’s future.

“Drug trading on the DarkNet isn’t going anywhere,” he tells me, “and ultimately it probably shouldn’t. I think it’s doing more good than harm.”

Amberleigh Jack is an Auckland-based writer.