The 'darknet' is a secure sphere where people can exchange information and currency anonymously, which is often exploited by criminals. In an interview with DW, UK writer Jamie Bartlett explains that while the darknet can be a haven for criminality, it also has legitimate functions.
Deutsche Welle: German investigators have posited that the 18-year-old gunman in Munich bought his weapon on a so-called darknet marketplace. What are darknet markets and how do they work?
Jamie Bartlett: Darknet markets are anonymous marketplaces. There are only a few thousand of them, which are accessed with an anonymous web browser called Tor. They buy and sell more or less anything, much like Amazon or eBay, and are highly competitive, highly functional marketplaces with all the trappings of an e-commerce site. They are used, I think, for drugs purchases - maybe hundreds of thousands of them every year. Far less commonly sold are things like guns, though they are bought and sold there. But it's very, very difficult to get to the bottom of how many. People go there to buy these items that you couldn't easily access, and they use a crypto-currency, a Bitcoin, to buy things. And they get delivered to people's addresses much like Amazon or eBay. The only difference is that they all take place under the guise of anonymity.
How can a darknet market in practical terms actually ship a complete weapon to a customer? Wouldn't the size and weight of such a shipment attract the attention of police or - when it comes to cross-border-trade - of customs officials?
That's the great challenge. I mean, some of it's done domestically, of course. And you can never be sure where a darknet market vendor is based, although they do sometimes say which country they will ship to or which country they are based in. It's safer with certain products to buy from a domestic supplier. You never know, of course, the exact address where they are based, but you might know that they're in your country.
The issue of risk in mailing these objects, whether they are drugs or guns or whatever, is, of course, a significant one. I can't speak for Germany, but in the UK the Royal Mail deals with millions of parcels every single year. Of course they do spot checks, but they could never hope to monitor all of them. And so inevitably a lot get through. These vendors are very, very sophisticated, they are very innovative and they always look for ways of getting around systems put in place to stop them. I don't think the issue of shipping is that much of a problem - things do get through.
There are reports that some of the most popular darknet markets have announced they will no longer allow lethal weapons to be traded on their platform. This seems to suggest a level of self-regulation. Is this a principled stance - do darknet markets operate on their own ethical code?
It's interesting because darknet markets have often had some kind of self-regulation. The most infamous of all the darknet markets was the Silk Road, which was shut down about 18 months ago - but not before hundreds of thousands of trades had gone through it. That site, although an anonymous marketplace, did not allow trade in illegal pornography, weaponry or fake identity because they said that's actually against libertarian principles which they claimed to stand for. Because libertarian principles suggest you should be able to do anything with your own body, your own self, but things like weapons and fake identity go beyond the line. There have always been other markets, however, that have not cared so much for that at all, where there's been absolutely no self-regulation. Now the problem with these marketplaces is - because essentially the darknet is a sort of platform, a network for any individual to try to set up a service - there's nothing beyond self-regulation. So while some marketplaces might decide to introduce some regulations for various reasons, unfortunately I think there will always be others that won't.
Do we have any idea of how prolific the darknet market weapons trade is in Europe? How does this compare to the illegal weapons trade on the streets? And what could realistically be done to counteract them?
It's very, very difficult to get a handle on how big the trade in some something like weapons is on the darknet market. We have some sense from surveys that are done about how the trade is in darknet market drugs. In the UK something like 10 percent of people who took drugs in the last year have said they got them or someone got them for them from a darknet market, so we have some idea. With guns, of course, people don't own up to things like that. It's very, very difficult to be sure. I have to be honest: I was quite surprised when I heard about this revelation, because even though I've been monitoring these markets for some time and even though a number of markets claim to be selling weaponry, I've not seen many instances at all of people actually buying and using guns from there.
My strong suspicion is that it's far easier and far more reliable - if I can use that word - for people to buy guns on the streets through criminal networks that we know already exist. I imagine the darknet market trade in guns is miniscule by comparison.
For all the problems that darknet markets pose for authorities trying to stem the flow of illicit drugs or black market weapons, there are arguments for anonymous networks. There are proponents that say encryption and secure information-sharing is necessary in a free society. What are your thoughts on this?
The darknet itself isn't only about these marketplaces and it isn't always about these guns and drugs. There are a lot of good reasons why people use them too. The darknet generally is an idea that you can have some benefits from anonymous sites that are difficult for the authorities to censor. Even though it causes problems, it does offer a place for whistleblowers to go and political activists to securely communicate. Things like the web browser Tor have huge value for individuals who want to either circumnavigate some form of state-led censorship or want to keep their privacy intact, especially when they are working in far more difficult parts of the world. The flipside is - the problem is - that then you are going to have a disproportionate level of criminals also using it, and that's exactly what we've seen happen.
Jamie Bartlett is the author of 'The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld.' The book is available in English and there is a translated version in German.