A discussion about dark net terminology

As a social scientist, I continue to be interested in understanding the intersections between internet technologies and psychoactive drugs, especially drugs that are otherwise difficult to obtain due to prohibition. These intersections are numerous: the internet can facilitate drug trades, information exchange, and safe spaces for communication between like-minded people. While all of the above occurred prior to ubiquitous internet use, current digital technologies lubricate these existing processes making them quicker, easier and more efficient, changing the scale of what is possible.

One enduring problem I have noticed when discussing these issues is a lack of clarity about terminology. This lack of clarity can lead to serious problems in logic and argument.

An example of this problem can be found in reporting by the Australian TV program 60 minutes from 2014, as described at AllThingsVice. In this program, the terms ‘deep web’ and ‘dark web’ were conflated. This conflation led to the reporters claiming that the dark web was 90% of the total content of the web, when in fact, it is many magnitudes smaller than the surface web. This conflation suited the tone of this story as it supported the scaremongering: making the dark web threat appear very large. Nevertheless the lack of shared definitions of terms makes this space harder to understand and easier to misrepresent.

I am by no means the definitive expert on all things dark net. What follows are my thoughts on what I believe we are talking about. I include here my sense of doubt and ambiguities that I believe exist regarding terminology and definitions of internet structures that surround or are present in the dark net. I invite your comments and hopefully these may lead to a more definitive document, although I doubt you can ever get ‘the internet’ to agree entirely on anything!

If we consider ‘the web’, that is, all of the content accessible through browsers connected to the Internet, we can divide the web into two parts: (1) the surface web, (2) the deep web. All content that can be accessed through search engines is the surface web. The remaining web content is the deep web: which we can define as content inaccessible via search engines. These terms and definitions were first used by Bergman in 2001. In his calculations the deep web was many magnitudes larger than the surface web, which he represented with an iceberg image, the surface web being just the tip of the iceberg of web content available. We are nearly 15 years on from this original formulation, so I have no idea the scale of content the web now contains. A very large number I’m sure!

So, what is contained within the deep web? Some examples include: content that is locked behind pay-walled websites, content accessible through company or academic databases, any kind of database that cannot be searched directly by Google, websites that are not linked to other websites, private websites and forums, etc. An example of typical deep web content is the results of a search for accommodation using a travel website. This content can only be accessed after a text search, which is something a search engine cannot do. A vast amount of website content can, therefore, not be indexed by clicking on links, and this is the deep web.

A small part of the deep web content includes hidden internet services, usually accessible through Tor but also through alternative anonymising software like I2P. By its users, this part of the internet is called the dark net. The terminology ‘dark’ refers to the difficulty finding the content rather than its nature being dark: content in the dark web is being intentionally hidden. The term dark net and the term dark web are often used interchangeably. According to wikipedia, a darknet is a private peer-to-peer network, but it also appears to be the term most currently used by hidden internet service communities to describe their world. For example, darknetstats, r/darknetmarkets, etc.

Dark net markets are digital platforms that use anonymising software (e.g. Tor) and cryptocurrencies (e.g. Bitcoin) to facilitate trade of goods and services. These marketplaces have also been called cryptomarkets (coined by James Martin) because they would not be possible without the use of cryptography. Dark net markets or cryptomarkets are a subset of the dark net or dark web; the dark net/web is a subset of the deep web; and the deep web is a subset of the entire web. The deep web is all content that is not classified as the surface web, but it appears that the terms surface web and clear web / clear net are used interchangeably to refer to the same thing: web content accessible via search engines. Perhaps at some point the clear / dark distinction was binary, in that the dark web represented everything that the clear web was not.

An interesting point was made in conversation with Rasmus Andersen on the above distinctions. He noted that it is in fact more difficult to access paywalled content in the deep web than it is to access dark net markets, because there are many access points in the surface web that lead there, even without the need to install Tor. For example, tor2web can be used as a gateway into dark net markets without actually using Tor, although this would not be a secure option. Many of the sites that track the development of dark net markets are also hosted in the clear web: deepdotweb and r/darknetmarkets, for example. So, although content from dark net markets is not directly indexed by search engines (at least clear web search engines, cf. dark net market search engine Grams), entry points into dark net markets abound in the clear net. A simple Google search can mean you are not far away from entering a dark net market. But as I’ve outlined previously, it takes more than entering the marketplace to make a successful purchase!

Here are some helpful related links:

Hacker Lexicon: What Is the Dark Web? by Andy Greenberg

Clearing up confusion – deep web vs. dark web by Bright Planet

Thanks to those involved in prior discussions on the Cryptomarket Research e-list. The above is provisional so tell me what you think in the comments.

Australia’s newest response to emerging psychoactive drugs

Having followed this issue closely and recently published an article in The Conversation outlining the various policy responses Australia might consider in response to emerging psychoactive drugs, I was surprised to read about the passing of new commonwealth legislation amending the Criminal Code 1995 in The Age yesterday.

Link to new legislation

Link to explanatory document

Link to call for public comment

Link to parliamentary readings and timeline for passing of bill

From these documents, we see that the first reading of the bill occurred on 10 October, a period of public comment was available from 11 to 26 October, the bill was passed to Senate on 30 October. It was introduced to the Senate on 31 October and passed on 21 November.

While all this was happening, I was focusing on providing evidence to the NSW Inquiry into new synthetic drugs, with no idea of the development and public consultation period of this other important legislation. While clearly I need to be better informed, I also think the Commonwealth should consider increasing public awareness and the capacity for the public to input into this area, as the NSW Inquiry has done.

Moving onto the legislation…

While I’m not a lawyer and have only read the bill once (disclaimer: don’t rely on me for legal advice!), this is the bit I think is the most important to consider:

“301.13 Emergency determinations—serious drugs
(1) The Minister may, by legislative instrument, determine that:
(a) a substance, other than a growing plant, is a controlled drug or a border controlled drug; or
(b) a growing plant is a controlled plant or a border controlled plant.
(2) The Minister must not make a determination under subsection (1) unless he or she is satisfied:
(a) that there is an imminent and substantial risk that the substance or plant will be taken without appropriate medical supervision; and
(b) one or more of the following conditions is met:
(i) taking the substance or plant may create a risk of death or serious harm;
(ii) taking the substance or plant may have a physical or mental effect substantially similar to that caused by taking a listed serious drug;
(iii) there is limited or no known lawful use of the substance or plant in Australia, and the substance or plant has been found by a public official in the course of the performance of the official’s duties;
(iv) the substance or plant may pose a substantial risk to the health or safety of the public.
(3) The Minister must not make more than one determination under this section in relation to a particular substance or plant.”

Initial questions that arise after reading this paragraph for me are:
–    Are we now in Australia going to have new drugs controlled entirely at discretion of parliamentary ministers?
–    Section 2-b-ii If the new substance has an effect ‘substantially similar’ to that caused by a prohibited drug will be enough to ban it… even if it causes substantially less harm whilst still producing a similar psychoactive effect?
–    Section 2-b Only one of these conditions needs to be met?

“301.17 Emergency determinations—publication
(1) The Minister must, on or before the day on which a determination under this Subdivision is registered (within the meaning of the Legislative Instruments Act 2003):
(a) make a public announcement of the determination; and
(b) cause a copy of the announcement to be published:
(i) on the internet; and
(ii) in a newspaper circulating in each State, the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory.”

My interpretation – folks will have absolutely no warning about said emergency determinations. No grace period for suppliers or users to remove these items from shelves or from their houses.

What I don’t understand is how will this legislative changes interact with State/Territory legislation. How will it be applied outside of federal jurisdictions? Any comments or thoughts on this issue would be appreciated.

Our federal response has gone in the opposite direction of our counterparts in New Zealand, who have proposed a regulatory model to deal with new psychoactive drugs.

While the NZ scheme would allow for the scenario of a lower risk alternative drug being legally available to use, the Australian response appears to assume that ANY substances that produces substantially similar effects to currently prohibited substances must be banned.

The problem is obvious to me. While there is no formal recognition of the functions and benefits of drugs that cannot be classed as formally ‘medical’ (that is, to get high, to enjoy oneself, to relax, to achieve personal insights, to explore altered conscious states), it is consistent to ban any substance with substantially similar effects to those currently prohibited.

Until our society can accept the critical importance of altering conscious states for human beings (and indeed many other animal species), we will fail* in our attempts to regulate emerging psychoactive substances.

* My definition of ‘fail’ may be different from yours or the government’s – I believe we have failed if our policies actually result in more rather than less drug-related harm.

Some would argue that if these new laws reduce access to emergent drugs, thereby reducing use, then less harm is produced. My hunch, however, is that access will continue, but our information about what is in these products and what we should advise people who choose to use them will be even more limited than it currently is. If my hunch is correct, we will be inducing more harm and providing less and less control.

We will also have to wait and see how these laws will play out in practice and when interacted with other legislative instruments.

I may be wrong on any of the above, so please correct me in the comments. Your input is greatly appreciated.


Some really expensive plant fertiliser…

The Australian Institute of Criminology released a report yesterday titled Patterns of mephedrone, GHB, Ketamine and Rohypnol use among police detainees: Findings from the DUMA program. The DUMA, or Drug Use Monitoring in Australia, project interviews police detainees about their knowledge or and experience with various drugs. In this report, the authors asked about some of the emerging drugs, including mephedrone. I wasn’t too surprised to see that only 27% of detainees had heard of mephedrone, 4% knew someone selling it, and less than 1% had used it.

What was less impressive than the actual findings of this research was the quality of the research that informed the literature review. One sentence reads:

Developed originally as a plant fertiliser, mephedrone became a significant public health and law enforcement concern after a number of reports about its apparent link to self-mutilation and, in some overseas cases, death (Fleming 2010).

However, mephedrone was not “developed originally as a plant fertiliser”. Mephedrone has been advertised as a plant fertiliser and ‘not for human consumption’ in an effort by manufacturers to avoid having to comply with legislation that regulates the content of food and drugs. It is not actually used as a plant fertiliser. And for all those who are using it as a fertiliser for their plants, I think they’d be wasting their money! Funnily enough, I don’t think the vast majority of hits I get on this website (after people searching for mephedrone get sent to my 2010 article on the topic) are from real gardeners.

The reference to Fleming is to a news article in the Guardian. I don’t have a problem with the Guardian, but really, wouldn’t it be better to read and cite one or more of the scholarly articles recounting the story of mephedrone? For example:

Davey, Z., Corazza, O., Schifano, F., & Deluca, P. (2010). Mass-information: Mephedrone, myths, and the new generation of legal highs. Drugs and Alcohol Today, 10(3), 24-28. doi:10.5042/daat.2010.0467

Winstock, A. R., Mitcheson, L. R., Deluca, P., Davey, Z., Corazza, O., & Schifano, F. (2011). Mephedrone, new kid for the chop? Addiction, 106, 154-161. doi:10.1111/j.1360-0443.2010.03130.x

van Hout, M. C., & Brennan, R. (2011). Plant food for thought: A qualitative study of mephedrone use in Ireland. Drugs: Education, Prevention, and Policy, Advance online publication. doi:10.3109/09687637.2010.537713

These articles describe the relationship between mephedrone and plant food, and reading these articles would have helped the AIC authors avoid the mistake they made.

Their reference list of this report contains mostly web ‘fact sheets’, newspaper articles and technical reports. This kind of reference list tends to be a red flag to me as it indicates the authors aren’t engaged with the peer reviewed literature. However, even if you head to the ADF factsheet on mephedrone cited by the authors, it states that:

Mephedrone (4-methylmethcathinone) was originally marketed as a plant fertiliser

Originally marketed, not originally developed. We can’t blame this error on the ADF factsheet.

I’ve sent the authors an email today and I’m hoping they will amend their online report so as not to continue perpetuating the myth about mephedrone actually being plant food!

UPDATE: the AIC informs me that they will edit this part of the report and repost it to their website. Good stuff 🙂