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Closing Dark Web Marketplaces Won’t Reduce Drug Use or Trafficking

Contrary to what US Attorney General Jeff Sessions says, the recent shutdown of two major dark web sites – AlphaBay and Hansa – will not reduce the prevalence of online drug marketplaces or solve the opioid crisis. In fact, it may do the opposite.

On July 20, the US Justice Department announced their seizure of AlphaBay, the largest operating dark web marketplace. As part of a coordinated effort with Dutch police, the FBI initially pretended the website shutdown was an exit scam – whereby “the proprietors of a dark web marketplace suddenly abscond with everyone’s money” – to avoid raising suspicion among users. Authorities had correctly expected that AlphaBay customers would then move to other popular websites, including Hansa.

Unbeknownst to the site’s users, the Dutch government had also taken over Hansa a month earlier on June 20, and were operating the site to collect information and trap people involved in the trade. Site users were made to think that “they’re just moving to another market and it turns to be law enforcement”. Authorities aimed to “[break] the trust, so that [users] would not feel safe on a dark market.”

At the time of the seizure, the FBI estimated that AlphaBay had facilitated the exchange of more than $1billion through digital currencies for at least 200,000 users and 40,000 vendors during its two years of operation. According to Rob Wainright, executive director of Europol, Hansa “recorded an eight times increase in the number of human users” when AlphaBay was shutdown. This allowed Dutch Police to collect information on over 10,000 users, which was then handed over to Europol.

Jeff Sessions celebrated this victory as “one of the most important criminal investigations of the year” against those who he insisted were “pouring fuel on the fire of the national drug epidemic”, likely referring to the US’ ongoing opioids deaths crisis (even though opioids are only estimated to account for six per cent of dark web drug listings).

However, expending countless hours and dollars to shutdown dark web sites is unlikely to reduce the harms of the opioid crisis, or combat drug trafficking – and the 2013 shutdown of the Silk Road website is evidence of this.

According to Kyle Soska and Nicolas Christin, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, “far from causing the demise of this novel form of commerce, the Silk Road take-down spawned an entire, dynamic, online anonymous marketplace ecosystem, which has continued to evolve to this day”. Many new sites cropped up in its place and grew to be much larger than the Silk Road ever was. Since 2013, illicit drug sales on the dark web have tripled and revenues have doubled. AlphaBay alone had 250,000 listings when it was seized. The Silk Road, in comparison, had 14,000.

In an April 2017 study, We Know Where You Are, What You Are Doing and We Will Catch You: Testing Deterrence Theory in Digital Drug Markets, researcher Isak Ladegaard tracked activity on two large dark web marketplaces. He measured how “(1) media coverage of police work on such markets and (2) the highly publicized conviction and life-sentencing of a market founder” affect market revenue. He estimated that the combined effect of both these factors increased the value of daily international sales from $100,000 to $250,000 in only two weeks.

Operations aimed at taking down dark web marketplaces, such as AlphaBay and Hansa, take immense time and money from law enforcement agencies worldwide.  Research suggests that this approach actually worsens the problem that authorities are trying to solve and, more importantly, it diverts the conversation and resources away from evidence-based measures that could reduce drug harms, including the opioid crisis. 

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