After last night’s 60 Minutes, any parent could be forgiven for barging into their teen’s bedroom and confiscating their computer, terrified that their offspring is accessing the 90% of the hidden internet filled with hitmen, weapons and drugs. Teens everywhere are doing it apparently.
The 60 Minutes report is available here: 60 Minutes report on The Dark Web from video.au.msn.com
Whilst parents need to be vigilant in protecting their children, this sort of scare-mongering does nothing to advance the drug debate. Parents would do better educating their kids and being aware of where the true dangers lie in illicit drug-taking: adulterated substances being sold as something else, dodgy clones of well-researched drugs, misinformation about the effects of different types of drugs and potential violence in a drug deal.
Here is an analysis of what I believe the 60 Minutes piece either got wrong, misrepresented or exaggerated:
0:22: ‘In fact, you only have access to 10% of [the internet]. The other 90% of it is hidden. A vast, secret underworld. It’s called “the dark web”’
This oft-trotted out piece of misinformation is dealt with below. Spoiler alert: 90% of the web is not made up of a “vast, secret underworld”.
2:52: ‘So simple, a child could do it. And some do.’
This is pure scaremongering. 60 Minutes had decided what their story was going to be well before they started researching it. I know this because they asked for my input into the program back in March. When I told them I had no research to support their hypothesis of teens turning online for drugs, they quickly lost interest.
Buying drugs online is not as simple as the click of a button. Any teenager resourceful enough to obtain bitcoins, learn Tor and PGP encryption and risk having unusual mail intercepted by their parents is probably not going to have trouble finding drugs anyway. That’s not to say I’m in denial that some teens have managed to buy from Silk Road and the other online markets, it is just that they do not make up a significant percentage of the customers, nor are a significant percentage of teens getting their drugs this way.
Using the tragic case of Preston Bridge is an unhelpful straw man. Nobody blames his grieving family for wanting to find answers and no journalist wants to be the one to appear to be diminishing their grief in any way. It is a tragic, horrible situation and my heart goes out to his obviously sincere and heartbroken father.
But there were many factors that may have had a part to play in Preston’s death. And the fact remains, he did not buy the drug that is being blamed for his death online. He did what the vast majority of teens who choose to take drugs do – he bought it from a friend. It is naïve in the extreme to imagine that if online drugs markets hadn’t existed, the drugs would not have been there that night. Teens who want them, know where to find them, and it usually does not involve a computer.
As (illicit) drugs are illegal, there is no regulation applicable to them. And the least amount of regulation comes in the form of the traditional purchase – from a friend, an acquaintance or a local low-level dealer. The pills or tabs that are handed to a teen could be anything, and as most teens don’t carry drug-testing kits around with them, they are taking a chance that the “ecstasy” or “LSD” that they just got for their night out has no MDMA or lysergic acid in it at all. Instead it may contain far more harmful substances.
It is common for pills being sold at clubs and parties as “ecstasy” to not contain MDMA, but rather the less desirable and more dangerous PMA, MDPV or meth. 25i and other synthetic substitutes are sold to unsuspecting punters as “LSD”.
There’s not much regulation online either, but an eBay-like feedback system and reports from independent testers maintain some semblance of market-driven quality control. Even the FBI’s own experience of making over 100 purchases revealed: “Samples of these purchases have been laboratory-tested and have typically shown high purity levels of the drug the item was advertised to be on Silk Road”.
4:58 “His son had taken a synthetic version of LSD, a deadly drug bought from Silk Road by a 17-year-old at the party”
The drug being blamed for Preston’s death was 25i-NBOME; one of the many so-called “legal highs” that have flooded the recreational drug market in the past few years. They are manufactured to mimic the effects of the most popular drugs: cannabis, ecstasy, LSD and cocaine and to circumvent drug laws.
We have decades of research into cannabis, ecstasy, LSD and cocaine. We know pretty much all there is to know about them, including effects, toxicity, contradications and so on. Ecstasy, LSD and cannabis all score significantly lower on Professor David Nutt’s scale of harm to both users and society than alcohol or tobacco. The fact is, whilst no drug (including asprin) is completely safe, ecstasy and LSD are not particularly dangerous in the scheme of things.
The new “synthetic highs” are completely untested, and whilst they may have similar effects to the drugs they purport to mimic, they do not have similar side effects. LSD, for example, is not toxic at any level; its mimic, 25i, is, and has been responsible for several deaths because of this.
5:56: ‘Henry Kwan had taken a synthetic LSD when he jumped from a third-floor apartment.’
Again, another senseless and tragic story. Again, Henry bought the drugs from a school mate, not online and apparently believed he was buying LSD.
Had Henry purchased the drug online instead of from a friend, at least he would have known what he was buying. He may have opted for LSD instead of its poor imitation. And he may just have received a little education. Many vendors provide warnings and safety advice on their sales pages. The discussion board allows new users to ask any question they may have in the safety forum. Silk Road even has it’s own physician, Dr Fernando Caudevilla, who provides tailored harm reduction advice to anyone who asks for it on the dark markets’ discussion forums.
This is not to say there are no dangers, or to encourage anyone to go out and buy drugs from a website. All I’m saying is If someone is going to use drugs regardless then in most instances it will be safer for them to purchase from the dark markets rather than in the traditional way.
6:40: ‘What many don’t realise is, that if you’re using a search engine like google or yahoo, you are only scratching the surface of the internet. Below is a mass of hidden content, more than 90% of the internet, known as the “deep” or “dark” web. With the right software, it’s easily accessible, and it’s here that the new breed of drug dealers are selling their wares.’
The statement that 90% of the internet is hidden is true, and it is called the deep web (not the dark web). The 90% that is hidden is all those pages you won’t get to using google or any other search engines. There’s nothing scary about that – in fact it works in your favour.
The easiest example is your bank. The bank’s major page is available to anyone who searches the web (part of the 10%, also known as the “clearweb”). But once you log in, all those pages you can access that contain your personal details? Not searchable on google. Each one of those pages is part of the 90% of the deep web. Business and government intranets also make up part of the deep web. Honestly, it’s nothing to worry about.
The dark web – the hidden services available through Tor and other anonymising programs – makes up a tiny fraction of the deep web. A really, really tiny fraction. It is infinitely smaller than the clearweb.
8:40: [reporter inserts $10 into a Bitcoin ATM] “Yeah, I got 13.8 bitcoins”
Given that 13.8 bitcoin as of today is worth $7,268 AUD, I really want to find this ATM. For 60 Minutes to receive 13.8 bitcoin for $10, they would have had to make that purchase in 2011 (when bitcoin ATMs didn’t exist). Obviously this was a misunderstanding by the reporter, but it shows a woeful lack of research and fact checking by the show.
9:20: ‘By this time last year, Silk Road has nearly a million registered customers. And Australians ranked as the third-largest users.’
Whilst it is probably true that Australians were Silk Road’s third largest customer base, this still misrepresents the stats. From the FBI’s own files:
- United States (30%)
- “Undeclared” (27%)
- UK (%not stated)
- Australia (%not stated)
Also, a million registrations does not mean a million customers. Many users registered in more than one name. And I would hazard a guess that many of the other registrations were from the merely curious who logged on to look after one of the hundreds of news reports over the past 3 years, who never made a purchase.
9:26 “More than $1.2 billion in drug deals had been made on the site”
I dealt with this overblown and misrepresented number in an earlier post: About this $1.2 billion crap.
9:50 ‘The original Dread Pirate Roberts was a swashbuckling character in the movie, The Princess Bride.’
No, the original was a character in the book by William Goldman. But now I’m being petty.
10:25 ‘Dread Pirate Roberts logged on to a website using an email account registered in his real name.’ [screen shows typing: “email@example.com”] ‘Within a minute, he changed it. But, it was too late’
First, what ever happened to using the word “alleged” when discussing someone who has not been tried and convicted for a crime?
Second, this is back to front. There is no evidence in the material seized from Silk Road that “Dread Pirate Roberts” logged on to the website in question. Once Ross Ulbricht was on the FBI’s radar, they looked for other traces of him online and found a post under his email address that indicated he was interested in programming a hidden website.
Third, the email address was firstname.lastname@example.org.
12:55: [dramatic re-enactment of uniformed FBI agents with guns drawn tackling Ulbricht in the library]
I believe that it was a female plain-clothes agent who did the deed. I understand dramatic licence and wouldn’t have mentioned this, but it irks the lurking feminist in me.
If you are a parent who is worried about their child experimenting with drugs, you should be aware of the sources. So sure, be concerned about the online availability and ask questions if they suddenly have an influx of mail, especially if its postmarked from the Netherlands. But don’t concentrate your efforts disproportionately there. You should be much more worried about them blindly experimenting with drugs supplied to them by a human being. Educate them, honestly, with facts, not scaremongering.
If you really want to help them, lobby for an end to the immoral War on Drugs that is the real culprit in crimnalising and killing our children, and which provides organized crime with untold millions.