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The darknet – a wild west for fake coronavirus ‘cures ‘? The reality is more complicated (and regulated)
The coronavirus pandemic has spawned reports of unregulated health products and fake cures being obsessed about the dark web. These include black market PPE, illicit medications like the widely touted “miracle” drug chloroquine, and fake COVID-19 “cures” including blood supposedly from recovered coronavirus patients.
These dealings have once more focused public attention on this little-understood element of the internet. Nearly 10 years because it started being applied to a substantial scale, the dark web continues to be a lucrative safe haven for traders in a selection of illegal goods and services, especially illicit drugs.
Black market trading on the dark web is carried out primarily through darknet marketplaces or cryptomarkets. These are anonymised trading platforms that directly connect buyers and sellers of a variety of illegal goods and services – just like legitimate trading websites such as eBay.
So just how do darknet marketplaces work? And simply how much illegal trading of COVID-19-related products is happening via these online spaces?
Not really a free-for-all
There are more than a dozen darknet marketplaces in operation. Protected by powerful encryption technology, authorities all over the world have largely failed to contain their growth. A steadily increasing proportion of illicit drug users around the globe report sourcing their drugs online. In Australia, we’ve one of many world market onion – https://archiefwiki.pleio.nl/wiki/The_Business_Of_World_Market’s highest concentrations of darknet drug vendors per capita.
Despite popular belief, cryptomarkets aren’t the “lawless spaces” they’re often presented as in the news. Market prohibitions exist on all mainstream cryptomarkets. Universally prohibited goods and services include: hitman services, trafficked human organs and snuff movies.
Although cryptomarkets lie away from realm of state regulation, each one is initiated and maintained by a central administrator who, alongside employees or associates, is responsible for the market’s security, dispute resolution between buyers and sellers, and the charging of commissions on transactions.
Administrators will also be ultimately in charge of determining exactly what do and can’t be sold on the cryptomarket. These decisions are likely informed by:
the attitudes of the surrounding community comprising buyers and sellers
the extent of consumer demand and supply for many products
the revenues a site makes from commissions charged on transactions
and the perceived “heat” that may be attracted from law enforcement in the trading of particularly dangerous illegal goods and services.
Experts delve in to the dark web
A written report from the Australian National University published a week ago discusses several hundred coronavirus-related products on the market across a dozen cryptomarkets, including supposed vaccines and antidotes.
While the study confirms some unscrupulous dark web traders are indeed exploiting the pandemic and seeking to defraud naïve customers, these details should be contextualised with several important caveats.
Firstly, how many dodgy covid-related products available on the dark web is relatively small. According to the research, they take into account about 0.2% of all listed items. The overwhelming majority of products were those we’re already knowledgeable about – particularly illicit drugs such as cannabis and MDMA.
Also, while the analysis dedicated to products listed available, these are usually listings for products that either do no exist or are listed with the precise intention to defraud a customer.
Thus, the actual sale of fake coronavirus “cures” on the dark web is probable minimal, at best.
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