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You, Me And World Market Onion: The Truth

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The darknet – a wild west for fake coronavirus ‘cures ‘? The reality is more difficult (and regulated)

The coronavirus pandemic has spawned reports of unregulated health products and fake cures being sold on the dark web. These generally 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 yet again focused public attention on this little-understood section of the internet. Nearly 10 years since it started being applied to a significant scale, the dark web continues to be a lucrative safe haven for traders in a range 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 – similar to legitimate trading websites such as eBay.

So how do darknet marketplaces work? And simply how much illegal trading of COVID-19-related products is happening via these online spaces?

Not just a free-for-all

There are currently greater 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 have among the world’s highest concentrations of darknet drug vendors per capita.

Contrary to popular belief, cryptomarkets aren’t the “lawless spaces” they’re often presented as in the news. Darkode Market – http://journal.ui.ac.id/index.php/mji/comment/view/18/0/27140 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 of these is initiated and maintained by a central administrator who, along with employees or associates, is accountable for the market’s security, dispute resolution between buyers and sellers, and the charging of commissions on transactions.

Administrators are also ultimately responsible for determining what can and can’t be sold on their 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 several products
the revenues a website makes from commissions charged on transactions
and the perceived “heat” that could be attracted from police force 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 looks at several hundred coronavirus-related products for sale across twelve 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, the amount of dodgy covid-related products available on the dark web is relatively small. According to this research, they account for about 0.2% of listed items. The overwhelming majority of products were those we are already acquainted with – particularly illicit drugs such as for instance cannabis and MDMA.

Also, while the study focused on products listed for sale, these are most likely listings for products that either do no exist or are listed with the particular intention to defraud a customer.

Thus, the specific sale of fake coronavirus “cures” on the dark web is likely minimal, at best.

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