Pubdate: Sat, 11 Apr 2015
Source: Economist, The (UK)
Copyright: 2015 The Economist Newspaper Limited

Drug Dealing


The web's two largest drug markets go down, panicking dealers and

"I JUST can't bear this any longer," writes "Megan" in an anonymous 
internet forum. Waiting for online shopping to be delivered is 
frustrating. But for drug users it can be agony. Megan's vice is 
OxyContin, an addictive prescription painkiller. Like many users, she 
buys her illicit supply on the "dark web", a hidden corner of the 
internet accessed with anonymous browsing software. In the past month 
the online market for drugs has been rattled, after the two main 
drug-dealing sites suddenly locked buyers and sellers out. "If you know 
anyone...who would sort something out for me tonight or tomorrow I'll 
drop dead of gratitude," pleads Megan.

The illegal-drugs trade, worth perhaps $300 billion a year, has been 
creeping onto the web. Like other online retailers, drug dealers can 
undercut the high street by spending less on maintaining a physical 
presence and employing salesmen. Consumers like the convenience and 
safety of shopping from home, and online product reviews are especially 
useful when buying potentially deadly substances. Bitcoin, a 
near-untraceable digital currency, covers their tracks. One in seven 
American drug users have ordered a fix online, according to one survey.
In this section

This was all upset on March 18th when Evolution Marketplace, the Amazon 
of the dark web, vanished in a puff of pixels. Unlike Silk Road, shut 
down by the FBI in 2013, Evolution seems to have been taken down by the 
people who ran it. In a brazen "exit scam", the site's anonymous 
administrators apparently made off with up to $15m in Bitcoin payments 
that they were holding in escrow.

A few days later, users reported that Agora, the next-biggest 
drug-peddling site, was inaccessible. Amid rumours of another scam, its 
administrators reassured buyers and sellers that they were simply 
carrying out technical upgrades. A rush of users migrating from 
Evolution may have put its servers under strain. The site has also 
suffered "denial of service" attacks-by law enforcers or rival dealers, 
no one is sure. After a wobbly Easter weekend, Agora is back, for now.

Together, Evolution and Agora were responsible for 82% of online drug 
listings, according to the Digital Citizens' Alliance, which monitors 
illicit online markets. Each was bigger than Silk Road ever was. A dozen 
smaller players, such as Nucleus Marketplace and Black Bank, stand to 
benefit from their problems.

The recent trial of Ross Ulbricht, Silk Road's creator, showed how 
deeply police have infiltrated the dark web. This is bad for business: 
though punters don't much fear arrest, they are wary of being ripped 
off, and better law enforcement increases the incentive for 
administrators to shut up shop and run off with the loot, says James 
Martin, a criminologist at Macquarie University in Australia.

Back in the online forum, another user suggests to Megan that if she 
can't get hold of OxyContin online, she could ask local dealers for 
heroin, which satisfies the same craving. What's more, he observes, 
"it's available in any country that has streets". It is also far 
deadlier. Driving drug users off the web and onto the backstreets 
carries risks.
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