Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Still darkness on the edge of town

I am not any sort of computer expert. I'm not up to speed on current programming languages and I can't really explain—in a technical sense—how the internet works, with regard to crawling, spiders, sitemaps, and the like.

That said, I know where things came from. I've been on the internet since before the day of the Netscape browser, since the time of Mosaic, Usenet forums, and Gopher. And in those early days, what there was of the internet was wide open. The problem was finding things. You needed specific addresses to look at specific servers, then you had to comb through file systems that might or might not be protected in one fashion or another. And since the early days, there have been things available on the internet that were, shall we say, leas than legal. Or to put it another way, there has always been something of a black market (and a grey market) on the 'net.

Of course, there have always been black markets, ever since there have been a markets. And that's because a market economy requires some measure of agreement, with regard to how transactions can occur and—often—when they can occur. More often than not, market economies exist under the umbrella of a society with rules or laws that either establish or stipulate the how and when of market transactions. And in this regard, there can also be some things for which a market is expressly denied. But the latter is not a given. It is a common mistake to assume that black markets involve only illegal goods. They certainly can, and they can also involve stolen goods, but neither is a given.

Black markets exist because they fill a need, because either sellers or buyers either cannot get what they want through the legal marker or because the black market is a more efficient medium of exchange. Of course, there is always an inherent danger with regard to black market activities, above and beyond the dangers of a legal market; since the transaction is expressly illegal, there is no legal recourse if either the seller or buyer feels victimized. A drug dealer cannot run to the police and complain because a customer paid with counterfeit currency, for instance.

Because of all of this, black markets are essentially outside of civil society, figuratively speaking. Literally, they can be located pretty much anywhere. There could be a black market operating out of a neighbor's garage, out of the back of a legitimate business, on a street corner, at a flea market, or even right at the counter of a store, any store. And there is no single good that is somehow beyond a black market exchange. Of course, what I'm describing here includes one-time and severely limited black markets, which might be more aptly described as "black market transactions," as opposed to some sort of actual, wide ranging market offering all sorts of things. Though of my above examples, a flea market can actually approach being an active black marketplace, as many are very close—at the very least—to being grey marketplaces.

But there are also real examples of black marketplaces that involve the exchange of multiple kinds of goods and services. And historically, such marketplaces were not just outside of civil society in a figurative sense, they were outside of it in a literal sense, existing on the edge of town, as it were. Many peoples in the past made use of this, as a means of providing for themselves. Often, they were marginalized groups, like the Roma peoples (often labeled as "gypsies") throughout much or Europe or the Jews in the same. Or they were people who had been economically marginalized during economic downturns. Or they were just criminals, who were seeking to sell actual stolen goods (I can't help but think of Cher's "Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves" at this point).

But note that in all of these cases, there was always an opportunity for abuse, from both directions. Because again, there was no legal recourse for offended parties. If they were "taken," their options were to just accept it or to engage in some form of retribution, which could be just as dangerous for them. Marketplaces such as these are rare these days (though not entirely gone), mostly because there just isn't an "edge of town" to speak of anymore. To be sure, there are still "bad parts" of town, but even such areas have some level of oversight, some measure of police presence.

In the modern world, the more general kind of black marketer has done what everyone has done: adapted, made use of technology. Want to know where one could find the largest black market, fifty or so years ago? Simple, look in a newspaper. Or a magazine (the less mainstream, the better). The classifieds, that's where it was. People looking to engage in illegal transactions, for one reason or another, realized that there were few controls in place—nor could there be—for transactions arranged between anonymous parties via ads in the classifieds. And there was almost nothing one could not acquire, if one knew were to look, up to and including professional hit men.

And there is still a little black market available in the classifieds, particularly as regards the sex industry. But the times they are a-changing, or rather have changed almost completely. For now the internet is the place to be if one wants to trade in the black market. There are sites like eBay and Craigslist that leave some room for such activities, but the real action is taking place on the so-called Dark Web. This article as ZDNet does a good job outlining the Dark Web, including this excellent definition of the same:
There's a difference between the "Deep Web" and "Dark Web." While the "Clear Web" is the surface area which is indexed by search engines such as Google and Yahoo, the Deep Web is an area search engines can't crawl for or index. Plunging in further, the Dark Web is a small area within the Deep Web which is intentionally hidden from discovery.
Got that, sports fans? We—most of us—operate largely within the Clear Web, where access is wide open and fully searchable. The Deep Web is made up primarily of webpages that cannot be accessed without passwords or registration, webpages that are not linked to any others pages, certain dynamic webpages, and webpages that specifically prohibit search engines from "crawling" them. Interestingly enough, the Deep Web is far larger than the Clear Web: the vast majority of information on the internet doesn't show up in search results. But there is nothing expressly illegal or nefarious about the Deep Web. It's just not as open as the Clear Web. Most of it is still readily accessible if one knows where one is going and/or follows the required procedures.

The Dark Web, however, is something else. It is a part of the Deep Web (a very small part), but access to the sites therein require special programs, software, and protocols that cannot be simply turned on or the like. In other words, there's no "Dark Web access" button on the Google toolbar. And within the Dark Web, there are all sorts of marketplaces offering all sorts of products and services. There are also messageboards, streaming videos, random screeds, and pretty much every other kind of private webpage one might find on the Clear Web.

The marketplaces, however, are what we are concerned with. These marketplaces are specifically set up to exist beyond the reach of the law. Oftentimes, transactions don't even involve dollars, euros, or any other state-sponsored kind of money. Instead, they are done using bitcoin, a virtual or digital currency that is not controlled by any government, but instead by—essentially—the sum total of bitcoin users under the computer code that dictates how new bitcoin is produced.

The development of bitcoin—which appeared in 2008—has been a boon to the Dark Web, insofar as it has largely minimized a primary security concern for black markets: the traceability of currency transactions. That said, it would be a mistake to assume the markets of the Dark Web are dependent on bitcoin. Because that's the thing here: black markets are like ever other market, they adapt.

Of course, law enforcement doesn't simply ignore all of this. Earlier in 2015, the notorious Silk Road—a Dark Web drug market that used bitcoin almost exclusively—was shut down by the FBI and its founder was sentenced to life in prison. This is, of course, an inherent danger for black markets, one that increases as a given marketplace becomes more successful and therefore more well known. Most Dark Web marketplaces are not well known by the public at large. In fact, I'd wager most people could not name an active marketplace if their lives depended on it. And I include myself in that group.

That said, it's not all that difficult to get an idea of what's happening in parts of the Dark Web by going to Reddit's /r/darknetmarkets. Recently, Canadian law enforcement busted a huge knockoff Xanax operation that was using the Dark Web (and bitcoins) to sell its product. And immediately, warnings went out on Reddit and elsewhere that the Dark Web marketplace and its associated user-handles had been compromised.

But for the most part, the marketplaces of the Dark Web operate daily with minimal intrusion by law enforcement. It is large-scale success that draws notice, something that has always been the case for black markets in general. Because that's the real point here: black markets aren't going away. They are actually an integral part of a market economy in general, despite the fact that some of the things being bought and sold therein are beyond distasteful (like child porn and sex slaves).

Don't misunderstand me, however. I'm not trying to defend or champion the Dark Web. I'm just noting it for what it is. And in that regard, it's also important to remember the scales involved here. A recent study estimated that the drug trade on the Dark Web—by far its largest economic sector—has a daily sales volume between $300,000 and $500,000, which translates to a yearly sales volume between $100 million and $180 million. For comparison, Amazon.com has a yearly sales volume that is routinely in excess of $60 billion. It was almost $90 billion in 2014. More to the point, estimates of the yearly sales volume for the Medellin drug cartel put it at over $3 billion per year. And this was in the 1980's!

Let that last bit sink in for a moment. Because it seems that there are a lot of people worried about the Dark Web, about it's impact. Sure, it's a very dark place and some of the goings on there need attention, need to be shut down, whenever possible. But like all black markets, it's a tiny subset of market activity in general; it's still on the edge of town.

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