Exploring the Darknet in Five Easy Questions

Darknet marketplaces are typically set up to engage in the trading of illicit products and services, and are considered criminal in most jurisdictions. Image: Dennis Yip (Flickr).

Many people are probably aware of something called “the darknet” (also sometimes called the “dark web”) or might have a vague notion of what it might be. However, many probably don’t know much about the global flows of drugs, weapons, and other illicit items traded on darknet marketplaces like AlphaBay and Hansa, the two large marketplaces that were recently shut down by the FBI, DEA and Dutch National Police.

We caught up with Martin Dittus, a data scientist working with Mark Graham and Joss Wright on the OII’s darknet mapping project, to find out some basics about darknet markets, and why they’re interesting to study.

Firstly: what actually is the darknet?

Martin: The darknet is simply a part of the Internet you access using anonymising technology, so you can visit websites without being easily observed. This allows you to provide (or access) services online that can’t be tracked easily by your ISP or law enforcement. There are actually many ways in which you can visit the darknet, and it’s not technically hard. The most popular anonymising technology is probably Tor. The Tor browser functions just like Chrome, Internet Explorer or Firefox: it’s a piece of software you install on your machine to then open websites. It might be a bit of a challenge to know which websites you can then visit (you won’t find them on Google), but there are darknet search engines, and community platforms that talk about it.

The term ‘darknet’ is perhaps a little bit misleading, in that a lot of these activities are not as hidden as you might think: it’s inconvenient to access, and it’s anonymising, but it’s not completely hidden from the public eye. Once you’re using Tor, you can see any information displayed on darknet websites, just like you would on the regular internet. It is also important to state that this anonymisation technology is entirely legal. I would personally even argue that such tools are important for democratic societies: in a time where technology allows pervasive surveillance by your government, ISP, or employer, it is important to have digital spaces where people can communicate freely.

And is this also true for the marketplaces you study on the darknet?

Martin: Definitely not! Darknet marketplaces are typically set up to engage in the trading of illicit products and services, and as a result are considered criminal in most jurisdictions. These market platforms use darknet technology to provide a layer of anonymity for the participating vendors and buyers, on websites ranging from smaller single-vendor sites to large trading platforms. In our research, we are interested in the larger marketplaces, these are comparable to Amazon or eBay—platforms which allow many individuals to offer and access a variety of products and services.

The first darknet market platform to acquire some prominence and public reporting was the Silk Road—between 2011 and 2013, it attracted hundreds of millions of dollars worth of bitcoin-based transactions, before being shut down by the FBI. Since then, many new markets have been launched, shut down, and replaced by others. Despite the size of such markets, relatively little is known about the economic geographies of the illegal economic activities they host. This is what we are investigating at the Oxford Internet Institute.

And what do you mean by “economic geography”?

Martin: Economic geography tries to understand why certain economic activity happens in some places, but not others. In our case, we might ask where heroin dealers on darknet markets are geographically located, or where in the world illicit weapon dealers tend to offer their goods. We think this is an interesting question to ask for two reasons. First, because it connects to a wide range of societal concerns, including drug policy and public health. Observing these markets allows us to establish an evidence base to better understand a range of societal concerns, for example by tracing the global distribution of certain emergent practices. Second, it falls within our larger research interest of internet geography, where we try to understand the ways in which the internet is a localised medium, and not just a global one as is commonly assumed.

So how do you go about studying something that’s hidden?

Martin: While the strong anonymity on darknet markets makes it difficult to collect data about the geography of actual consumption, there is a large amount of data available about the offered goods and services themselves. These marketplaces are highly structured—just like Amazon there’s a catalogue of products, every product has a title, a price, and a vendor who you can contact if you have questions. Additionally, public customer reviews allow us to infer trading volumes for each product. All these things are made visible, because these markets seek to attract customers. This allows us to observe large-scale trading activity involving hundreds of thousands of products and services.

Almost paradoxically, these “hidden” dark markets allow us to make visible something that happens at a societal level that otherwise could be very hard to research. By comparison, studying the distribution of illicit street drugs would involve the painstaking investigative work of speaking to individuals and slowly trying to acquire the knowledge of what is on offer and what kind of trading activity takes place; on the darknet it’s all right there. There are of course caveats: for example, many markets allow hidden listings, which means we don’t know if we’re looking at all the activity. Also, some markets are more secretive than others. Our research is limited to platforms that are relatively open to the public.

Finally: will you be sharing some of the data you’re collecting?

Martin: This is definitely our intention! We have been scraping the largest marketplaces, and are now building a reusable dataset with geographic information at the country level. Initially, this will be used to support some of our own studies. We are currently mapping, visualising, and analysing the data, building a fairly comprehensive picture of darknet market trades. It is also important for us to state that we’re not collecting detailed consumption profiles of participating individuals (not that we could). We are independent academic researchers, and work neither with law enforcement, nor with platform providers.

Primarily, we are interested in the activity as a large-scale global phenomenon, and for this purpose, it is sufficient to look at trading data in the aggregate. We’re interested in scenarios that might allow us to observe and think about particular societal concerns, and then measure the practices around those concerns in ways that are quite unusual, that otherwise would be very challenging. Ultimately, we would like to find ways of opening up the data to other researchers, and to the wider public. There are a number of practical questions attached to this, and the specific details are yet to be decided — so stay tuned!

Martin Dittus is a researcher and data scientist at the Oxford Internet Institute, where he studies the economic geography of darknet marketplaces. More: @dekstop

Follow the project here: https://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/research/projects/economic-geog-darknet/

Twitter: @OiiDarknet

Further reading (academic):

Further reading (popular):

Martin Dittus was talking to OII Managing Editor David Sutcliffe.

Why we shouldn’t believe the hype about the Internet “creating” development

It’s about time. However, despite enthusiasm, there is a lack of academic consensus about the impacts of digital connectivity on economic development. Image: Nicolas Friederici.

Vast sums of money have been invested in projects to connect the world’s remaining four billion people, with these ambitious schemes often presenting digital connectivity as a means to achieve a range of social and economic developmental goals. This is especially the case for Africa, where Internet penetration rates remain relatively low, while the need for effective development strategies continues to be pressing.

Development has always grappled with why some people and places have more than others, but much of that conversation is lost within contemporary discourses of ICTs and development. As states and organisations rush to develop policies and plans, build drones and balloons, and lay fibre-optic cables, much is said about the power of ICTs to positively transform the world’s most underprivileged people and places.

Despite the vigour of such claims, there is actually a lack of academic consensus about the impacts of digital connectivity on economic development. In their new article, Nicolas Friederici, Sanna Ojanperä and Mark Graham review claims made by African governments and large international institutions about the impacts of connectivity, showing that the evidence base to support them is thin.

It is indeed possible that contemporary grand visions of connectivity are truly reflective of a promising future, but it is equally possible that many of them are hugely overblown. The current evidence base is mixed and inconclusive. More worryingly, visions of rapid ICT-driven development might not only fail to achieve their goals—they could actively undermine development efforts in a world of scarce resources. We should therefore refuse to believe it is self-evident that ICTs will automatically bring about development, and should do more to ask the organisations and entities who produce these grand visions to justify their claims.

Read the full article: Friederici, N., Ojanperä, S., and Graham, M. (2017) The Impact of Connectivity in Africa: Grand Visions and the Mirage of Inclusive Digital Development. Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries, 79(2), 1–20.

We caught up with the authors to discuss their findings.

Ed.: Who is paying for these IT-development projects: are they business and profit-led, or donor led: and do the donors (and businesses) attach strings?

Nicolas: Funding has become ever more mixed. Foundational infrastructure like fibre-optic cables have usually been put in place through public private partnerships, where private companies lay out the network while loans, subsidies, and policy support are provided by national governments and organisations like the World Bank. Development agencies have mostly funded more targeted connectivity projects, like health or agricultural information platforms.

Recently, philanthropic foundations and tech corporations have increased their footprint, for instance, the Rockefeller Foundation’s Digital Jobs project or Facebook’s Open Cellular Base stations. So we are seeing an increasingly complex web of financial channels. What discourse does is pave the way for funding to flow into such projects.

The problem is that, while private companies may stop investing when they don’t see returns, governments and development funders might continue to pour resources into an agenda as long as it suits their ideals or desirable and widely accepted narratives. Of course, these resources are scarce; so, at the minimum, we need to allow scrutiny and look for alternatives about how development funding could be used for maximum effect.

Ed.: Simple, aspirational messages are obviously how politicians get people excited about things (and to pay for them). What is the alternative?

Nicolas: We’re not saying that the rhetoric of politicians is the problem here. We’re saying that many of the actors who are calling the shots in development are stubbornly evading valid concerns that academics and some practitioners have brought forward. The documents that we analyse in the article—and these are very influential sources—pretend that it is an unquestionable fact that there is a causal, direct and wide-spread positive impact of Internet and ICTs on all facets of development, anywhere. This assertion is not only simplistic, it’s also problematic and maybe even dangerous to think about a complex and important topic like (human, social) development in this way.

The alternative is a more open and plural conversation where we openly admit that resources spent on one thing can’t be spent on another, and where we enable different and critical opinions to enter the fray. This is especially important when a nation’s public is disempowered or misinformed, or when regulators are weak. For example, in most countries in Europe, advocacy groups and strong telecoms regulators provide a counterforce to the interests of technology corporations. Such institutions are often absent in the Global South, so the onus is on development organisations to regulate themselves, either by engaging with people “on the ground” or with academics. For instance, the recent World Development Report by the World Bank did this, which led the report to, we think, much more reliable and balanced conclusions compared to the Bank’s earlier outputs.

Ed.: You say these visions are “modernist” and “techno-determinist”—why is that? Is it a quirk of the current development landscape, or does development policy naturally tend to attract fixers (rather than doubters and worriers). And how do we get more doubt into policy?

Nicolas: Absolutely, development organisations are all about fixing development problems, and we do not take issue with that. However, these organisations also need to understand that “fixing development” is not like fixing a machine (that is, a device that functions according to mechanical principles). It’s not like one could input “technology” or “the Internet,” and get “development” as an output.

In a nutshell, that’s what we mean when we say that visions are modernist and techno-determinist: many development organisations, governments, and corporations make the implicit assumption that technological progress is fixing development, that this is an apolitical and unstoppable process, and that this is working out in the same way everywhere on earth. This assumption glances over contestation, political choices and trade-offs, and the cultural, economic, and social diversity of contexts.

Ed.: Presumably if things are very market-led: the market will decide if the internet “solves” everything: ie either it will, or it won’t. Has there been enough time yet to verify the outcomes of these projects (e.g. how has the one-laptop initiative worked out)?

Nicolas: I’m not sure I agree with the implication that markets can decide if the Internet solves everything. It’s us humans who are deciding, making choices, prioritising, allocating resources, setting policies, etc. As humans, we might decide that we want a market (that is, supply and demand matched by a price mechanism) to regulate some array of transactions. This is exactly what is happening, for instance, with the spread of mobile money in Kenya or the worldwide rise of smartphones: people feel they benefit from using a product and are willing to pay money to a supplier.

The issue with technology and development is (a) that in many cases, markets are not the mechanism that achieves the best development outcomes (think about education or healthcare), (b) that even the freest of markets needs to be enabled by things like political stability, infrastructure, and basic institutions (think about contract law and property rights), and (c) that many markets need regulatory intervention or power-balancing institutions to prevent one side of the exchange to dominate and exploit the other (think about workers’ rights).

In each case, it is thus a matter of evaluating what mixture of technology, markets, and protections works best to achieve the best development outcomes, keeping in mind that development is multi-dimensional and goes far beyond economic growth. These evaluations and discussions are challenging, and it takes time to determine what works, where, and when, but ultimately we’re improving our knowledge and our practice if we keep the conversation open, critical, and diverse.

Ed.: Is there a consensus on ICT and development, or are there basically lots of camps, ranging from extreme optimists to extreme pessimists? I get the impression that basically “it’s complicated”—is that fair? And how much discussion or recognition (beyond yourselves) is there about the gap between these statements and reality?

Nicolas: ICT and development has seen a lot of soul-searching, and scholars and practitioners have spent over 20 years debating the field’s nature and purpose. There is certainly no consensus on what ICTD should do, or how ICTs effect/affect development, and maybe that is an unrealistic—and undesirable—goal. There are certainly optimistic and pessimistic voices, like you mention, but there is also a lot of wisdom that is not widely acknowledged, or not in the public domain at all. There are thousands of practitioners from the Global North and South who have been in the trenches, applied their critical and curious minds, and seen what makes an impact and what is a pipe dream.

So we’re far from the only ones who are aware that much of the ICTD rhetoric is out of touch with realities, and we’re also not the first ones to identify this problem. What we tried to point out in our article is that the currently most powerful, influential, and listened to sources tend to be the ones that are overly optimistic and overly simplistic, ignoring all the wisdom and nuance created through hard scholarly and practical work. These actors seem to be detached from the messy realities of ICTD.

This carries a risk, because it is these organisations (governments, global consultancies, multilateral development organisations, and international tech corporations) that are setting the agenda, distributing the funds, making the hiring decisions, etc. in development practice.

Read the full article: Friederici, N., Ojanperä, S., and Graham, M. (2017) The Impact of Connectivity in Africa: Grand Visions and the Mirage of Inclusive Digital Development. Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries, 79(2), 1–20.

Nicolas Friederici was talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.