Intl cooperation needed to curb online drug trade

By Chris Dalby Source:Global Times Published: 2015-7-7 22:43:29

New approach required as dealers use Web to avoid detection

Illustration: Peter C. Espina/GT

The online drug trade is thriving in China, with thousands of transactions being done through domestic websites like Qinjiayuan or international portals like Guidechem. In fact, it has become an economic force to be reckoned with on the Internet, facilitated by the rise in online currencies like bitcoin. The government's consistent crackdowns on the real world drug trade have pushed dealers underground or online where it is much more difficult to catch them, with new websites springing up within hours of old ones being shut down.

The infamous Silk Road, whose founder was recently jailed for life, was used by Chinese dealers until it was closed after a successful FBI investigation. This very public success provided a roadmap for how to break up online drug rings. However, it seems strange that while drug investigations in the real world often see international cooperation, online campaigns tend to lack a global focus.

In the wake of the Silk Road closure, China has re-launched its own anti-drug campaign, with its zero tolerance approach extended to the online arena. The Internet Society of China is spearheading this move, along with a number of other agencies, including the National Anti-Drug Commission. This move should be welcomed, especially given the range of responsibilities that it forces players to take. One area that stands out in particular is the insistence on private companies taking responsibility.

Under this new regulation, telecom providers like China Mobile and China Unicom, along with a wide range of Chinese Internet companies and courier services, could be fined if the government finds that their services are being used for the illegal drug trade. Neither is this a case of the government lecturing corporations as these companies have all voluntarily signed up to the agreement to comply with this fight. Such cross-sector collaboration sets a strong international example at a time when the online drug trade now moves far more money and drugs than the in-person trade while being far less talked about. Since April, over 33,000 people have been arrested in China for online drug crimes while 832 websites have been shut down.

However, this is not enough. China's campaign, while laudable, must now be ramped up to join up with international efforts. The FBI's war against the Silk Road was successful, but it is the nature of the Web that several copycat sites have already sprung up. Deepbay, Sheep Marketplace, and Black Market Reloaded are relying on the same security policies as Silk Road, such as the use of bitcoin, but this makes them similarly vulnerable.

With China's growing demand for narcotics benefiting such sites, the country's involvement with US and European campaigns is a necessary step. The first step would be to advise these foreign partners to take a leaf out of China's campaign book. While Western governments may not be so quick to fine Internet providers and while these same companies may not feel comfortable with turning over user data to the authorities, these qualms should be set aside.

At the same time, China could learn a lot from the cyber-sleuthing unleashed by the FBI to take down Silk Road, labeled the most sophisticated and extensive criminal marketplace on the Internet. Inter-agency cooperation is difficult between different agencies of the same country, let alone between foreign intelligence bodies. However, this is one of the rare occasions when all governments have the same long-term goal. If not, the consequences will be clear. A Chinese government report issued ahead of the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking on June 26 made it clear that, without such assistance, online drug dealers will stay ahead of the law.

The author is a Mexico-based analyst of Chinese politics and economics.

Posted in: Columnists

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