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.

Returning from leave to begin a new fellowship!

This week I have returned to work from maternity leave to start a new job at the University of NSW, specifically within the Drug Policy Modelling Program at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre. I am starting my 4-year National Health and Medical Research Council Early Career Fellowship. My topic of research continues my interests ‘Drugs, Internet, Society’ but with a specific focus on new/novel/emerging drugs, as these pose unique policy challenges both here and globally.

I’ll be part-time to begin with and I have a number of ongoing projects to complete as well, but I do hope to become more active again with my blogging and other social media outlets. I really value the interactivity and public conversations that these media allow. So, expect some more discussions over the coming months. 🙂

Letter to Nash and Dutton re defunding ADCA

My email to Senator Nash and MP Peter Dutton:

Dear Ms Nash and Mr Dutton

I was shocked to discover that the ADCA has been defunded by your government. I am a research fellow specialising in alcohol and other drug research – my work has recently been recognised by an early career research fellowship through the National Health and Medical Research Council. I have been a member of the ADCA since 2003, when I first began working in this field. I regularly use their services and participate in their events, which enable the broader public to be better informed about drug/alcohol issues. These issues touch the lives of almost everyone in our community. I am astonished that your government does not see the value in such an organisation with a 50 year history, an organisation that is highly valued by everyone in our field.

I would ask you to reconsider your decision. For what is a relatively small amount of funding, this group does a lot of good work, and is supported by paid members like myself, so is not entirely dependent on your funding (therefore bringing greater value for money than a fully funded council). I see this decision as very short-sighted, because by reducing the government commitment to ADCA, you will very likely be increasing the burden of alcohol/drug issues in the community, therefore increasing the costs of managing such problems down the track. Prevention is better than cure, and it is also less costly for the budget. I would hope you would see this logic when consider budgetary matters rather than looking for short-term cuts.

Yours sincerely,



Farewell for a little while

There’s been a lot going on in the world of online drug markets and new synthetic drugs lately. I appreciate people are interested in my commentary on these matters. I wish I could respond to you all, but unfortunately I am unable to do so.

In 4 weeks time I will go on maternity leave, and will be taking quite a few months (perhaps even a year!) away from my job. I need some time in this last month to finish up the loose ends of my project work, and then I need to prepare for the impending arrival of our first child!

If you have a new request for me, please contact the National Drug Research Institute reception on +61892661600 or ndri@curtin.edu.au where our receptionist and media officers can assign other researchers to help you.

As for my blog readers, I’m not sure how long I’ll be away – I might pop my head back in to write some ideas up, but can’t guarantee anything. Stay safe and be well. 🙂



The problem with banning

Edit: You can listen to a version of this post here: Link to 1233 Newcastle clip

Tragically, we have seen another teen (Henry Kwan) die after consuming what he believed to be LSD, but which was actually an NBOMe (e.g. 25I-NBOMe), which is a much newer and more potent psychedelic substance. At the same time the NSW Fair Trading Department has banned a list of products that contain synthetic analogue drugs and has raided stores across that state.

I was asked onto ABC Radio in Newcastle this morning for my view on this issue and this is a summary of what I said:

The problem with banning is that banning is one of the major causes of this problem in the first place.

To take the example of cannabis, we currently prohibit the use of cannabis, although if someone is caught with personal use amounts of cannabis, they will either be fined or diverted for first offences across Australia. Even so, people know that it is illegal and that it is an offence. And many people care deeply about that. They want to be able to consume cannabis and not worry at all about being caught, to be able to do it legally, to know that they can enjoy a weekend spliff just like others enjoy a weekend beer, without having to worry about losing their job because a drug test is positive for past cannabis use.

So when these people are made aware of a new so-called legal weed, the synthetic cannabis products, they are interested. Maybe they can finally enjoy the cannabis like high without having to worry about the legality.

So you can see that prohibition of cannabis largely drives these people’s attraction to synthetic cannabis products.

Over the last couple of years we have seen some of the health harms that have arisen from people switching from natural to synthetic – including withdrawal, dependence, psychosis, seizures. Now, I’m not saying plant based cannabis is harmless, but it has been proven to have medicinal pain relieving qualities. At least we know a lot more about cannabis and its many constituents, we have been doing research for many decades and it has been used by humans for millenia. This is the opposite for the vast number of synthetic cannabinoids which we know very little about. Therefore, I think it is reasonable to conclude that if someone is going to use one product or the other, natural plant-based cannabis is a better choice, a healthier choice. Yet, our policies seem to be pushing people towards the lesser choice, the choice we know less about, and which appears to be associated with more harmful effects – that is, the synthetic cannabis products.

We need to ask: what is drug policy about? Is it about helping people to reduce drug harms, by nudging them towards less harmful options? Or is it about putting our head in the sand and thinking we can eliminate all drug use somehow, while at the same time, nudging people who consume drugs towards more harmful options? Or is it not about harms at all… but rather, about the appearance of doing something in the eyes of the voting public?

I think we need to have a serious discussion about what we want from our drug policies and what we value in Australia when it comes to drug use, something almost all of us do when you consider that alcohol, caffeine and pain medications are also psychoactive drugs.

I would suggest that Australia needs to join the global discussion about alternatives to the prohibition model. That doesn’t mean that we move to legalisation of all drugs – there are a lot of different models of regulation we could consider. But the very first step is to acknowledge that we have a problem and that we need to consider solutions. Until the Australian public and our governments and our other officials in police, justice, health and social sectors publicly acknowledge that the current system is broken, anyone who tries to start this discussion is labelled as radical. These issues are complex and they require strong leadership of a public discussion that opens up our assumptions to full scrutiny.

Buying on Silk Road

In this post, I’m going to write up the process of buying something on Silk Road. The first thing to note is that the item I bought was not an illicit drug, otherwise I’d hardly be detailing the process on a public and identified blog. Rather, my purpose was ethnographic – if I am to study how the SR marketplace works, taking part in aspects of it is a useful learning tool. Reading an account of something, or listening to someone’s story, is one way of learning. Another way is to try it for yourself – and as I usually find, self-experience can result in learnings that you can’t necessarily predict!

Browsing the SR marketplace for items which were legal and which I would otherwise have bought led me to the Apparel section of the site. Although best know for its selection of psychoactive substances, SR also sells a wide range of goods and some services. In the Apparel section, I found jackets, bags, jeans, sunglasses, jewelery. Many of these listings were for faked designer goods, as opposed to stolen goods. I thought to myself that if I were in South East Asia on holiday and bought myself some ‘fake’ designer clothing, I wouldn’t get stopped at the Australian border and strip-searched. Almost all Australians I know will buy these much cheaper faked goods when overseas. So this appeared to be a good option for a ‘legal’ SR purchase.

If only I'd bought them for this price!
An example of FoxyGirl’s offerings

From the would-be buyers perspective, it is important to get a sense of the trustworthiness of the vendor you are considering purchasing from. The item I liked the look of the best was FoxyGirl’s replica [insert designer name here] sunglasses. So I checked out FoxyGirl’s reputation. Searching for her name in the forums led me to her review thread, where I found links to her Tor ‘gallery’ of items for sale, and comments by other SR members who seemed satisfied with their purchases. One comment I found read:

Grabbed some [insert designer name here] from foxy and holy hell! I put em up next to my real ones and honestly, cant really tell they are fake at all. really good replicas!
shipping was super fast and very well packaged might I add! Thanks so much foxygirl! will be grabbing more stuff very very soon!

I then read carefully through FoxyGirl’s terms and conditions and her feedback, which was positive. She seemed like a friendly salesperson, willing to help. But most of the vendor profiles seem to be written in that way. I then messaged FoxyGirl to ask her for some more details about the sunglasses, and really just to suss out her legitimacy. True to her word, she got back to me with further information and in a professional yet friendly style.

At this point I was convinced – I was going to buy these sunglasses. Of course, in order to complete the transaction, I needed to have enough Bitcoin in my SR account.

Back in March, I decided to bite the bullet and buy $300 AUD of Bitcoin. I chose a time when the market was pricing BTC at $147 AUD per coin. I traded with a friend I met at a local #cryptoparty who had a listing on Bitcoin-OTC. In fact once I knew this guy and he taught me how to use encryption, buy BTC from him was as simple. First, I downloaded Bitcoin-QT, the original wallet software (this takes a few days due to the size of the blockchain which must be constantly updated to keep the network in-sync). Then, my friend sent me his bank details (encrypted, of course). I then deposited $300 in his bank account, taking a screenshot of the transaction as evidence. He promptly transferred me the equivalent in Bitcoin minus a small commission for his efforts. I then had 1.9 BTC.

One of the oddities about this context of buying with BTC which I had not anticipated was that since I bought them in March for $147 per coin, they continued to appreciate in value until they were worth over $250 each coin! During this time, I was meaning to buy my sunglasses but each day that passed, the price in BTC was getting lower and lower as the BTC value increased. I found that I didn’t want to purchase because what if tomorrow the price was even lower? This experience of wanting to hoard rather than buy is not something we are used to experiencing when using an inflationary currency, e.g. the AUD or the USD.

Of course I was a victim of my own greed. On April 11, BTC value plunged and suddenly my sunglasses were much more expense! If only I’d bought them when the BTC was valued at $250… Sigh! In fact, what actually happened was that I had decided to buy the sunglasses on April 10, and so I made a transfer from my local wallet to my SR wallet of .51 BTC, which at the time would have bought me two pairs and express postage! This was at 10pm at night and I was tired, and so it happens, it take a few hours for the transfer to occur from your wallet to the SR wallet. So I went to sleep. In the morning the price has plunged.

I waited for a little while, hoping the BTC value would come back up somewhere near the price I bought them for. But this didn’t look likely anytime soon, so I bought myself 1 pair (note, not the 2 I was going to get!) and express postage, for .75 BTC. The process essentially involved typing my name and address and confirming the order. FoxyGirl offers buyers the option of encrypting the address details using her public key for extra protection. As I am not buying an illegal item, I was happy to use my actual name and actual address and not to encrypt. To me, this is the weakest link of the system for the buyer (who is purchasing an illegal item) – they must decide what to do. It seems a lot of people who buy drugs on SR do ship to their real name and real address: I guess there is more chance it will arrive that way as long as Customs or the Post do not detect contraband in the package. But there is a lottery involved here – some packages do get checked and do get detained. In Australia it appears the odds of having a package detected is a bit higher than in other parts of the world.

I’ve had further messages with FoxyGirl to nominate what colour and size I would like, and now she is processing my order. Another custom to be aware of in SR transactions is ‘finalising’. Once the order moves from processing to in transit, as the buyer, I will have the option to ‘finalise’ which indicate the package has arrived and the vendor can receive their money from the SR escrow. As I am a first-time buyer and from Australia, there’s a high chance that I will be asked to finalise early, which means to press that finalise button before the vendor will ship the product. The rules on SR state that no-one should finalise early because then all the risk is transferred from the vendor to the buyer, but many top vendors request FE to protect themselves against buyer fraud. In my case, FoxyGirl had no requirement to FE, so I’ll do it the SR approved way. But in my browsing of drug listings, many top vendors selling MDMA or cannabis or cocaine require FE for Australians or for buyers with no history or negative history.

Now I just have to wait and see when (if?) my package arrives!


Update 29/4/13: my package arrived this morning and the goods all check out. Looks very legit. The slightly concerning part was that I was asked to sign for the goods. I’m sure most people buying from SR wouldn’t be so keen to sign for their package. Other than that, all went well.

Tripping on the Steps of Parliament House

Greg Kasarik will be tripping on the steps of Victoria’s parliament house tomorrow from midday to protest for the rights of all Victorians to legally use Transcendent Compounds for spiritual and religious purposes.

Greg is making an important stand for religious freedom. He is bringing the public’s attention to a lesser understood and acknowledged reason for using psychoactive substances – to gain personal and spiritual insight, and to better understand where we come from and why we are here.

The text below is lifted from Greg’s Facebook event:

At midday on Wednesday 28 November, in celebration of completing two weeks of Hunger Strike 2012, Greg Kasarik will be taking a tab of LSD on the steps of Victoria’s Parliament House.

At the commencement of his Hunger Strike Greg had a last lunch of magic mushrooms.

Despite sending out a press release to the television and newspaper news outlets and forwarding a copy to the Premier’s office, cleverly entitled “Mystic Man to Munch Magic Mushrooms in Melbourne’s Marvellous Mall”, precisely nobody turned up.

No media. No Government and certainly no police. This (along with their heroic efforts at pretending we don’t exist: www.kasarik.com/Government-Correspondence.php) tells me that the Victorian Government knows they don’t have a leg to stand on and that they’d rather simply hope that we all went away.

This is not going to happen and to up the ante a bit, I will be re-enacting my odyssey in the Mall, but this time with a single tab of LSD.

Will anybody care? Will anybody notice? Will the police tazer me to death, or just tell me that my puppy and I can’t sit on the steps after all? Come along and find out!

This isn’t a rally, or anything, as I am doing this as a private citizen and Saasha is doing it as a private dog, but if several thousand people happen to drop by unexpectedly, I certainly won’t complain. 🙂 Feel free to invite anyone who might be interested.

I mean, what else is there to do now university is over for the year?

If you do decide to come along, I’d ask that you dress nicely, cover any tatts and do your best to look presentable in the public eye and behave politely at all times (even if the police do get aggressive). If anything does happen, you can guarantee that the media will be there to observe.

Read more about Greg’s hunger strike and how you can support him.

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.


‘Backyard pot grown for health: survey’

Have you found my website after reading a story about a cannabis cultivation study that is still looking for participants?

If this is you, please go to http://worldwideweed.nl

And if you are Australian, go straight to http://ndri.curtin.edu.au/research/grow/

Thanks to Melissa Jenkins of AAP for filing the story on interim results from the study, covered in:

Sky News

Daily Telegraph

Herald Sun

The Australian

The West

Adelaide Now