Before last week, the only time you may have heard of AlphaBay was when they were making headlines selling stolen Uber accounts in 2016. Make no mistake – AlphaBay was much more than an identity fraud website. It was also the biggest online drugs marketplace with an estimated 240,000 users, generating between $600,000 and $800,000 each day.
I was scrolling through Reddit when I saw a thread claiming that AlphaBay had been down for a whole day. Make no mistake, 24 hours in the darknet world is more than enough to arouse suspicion in vendors and buyers. There was speculation that AlphaBay had pulled an exit scam – where owners of a website shut down services and steal the Bitcoins held on the platform. But with such a profitable business, it was hard to see why AlphaBay would do this.
On July 13th the media revealed that police authorities had taken down AlphaBay and arrested Alexandre Cazes a few days earlier, the suspected founder of the platform. He was a software designer for EBX technologies which has now also gone offline. Cazes has since been found hanged in his Thai jail cell. This abrupt end to AlphaBay’s success points all former users of the site to one question – where to next?
Hansa seems to be the best alternative. It was AlphaBay’s competitor for a few years but will now take the lead as biggest online drugs marketplace. But due to the influx of ‘AlphaBay refugees’ they have temporarily suspended new registrations. Hansa also aims to be more secure than AlphaBay was by using more complex encryption tactics to safeguard Bitcoins.
There was a time too when AlphaBay was the underdog of the online drugs market. The Silk Road website was generating $1.2 billion in sales before being shut down by the FBI in 2013. The Bureau hailed this as a massive victory against the drug war, but the market was quick to adapt and find a new platform. As the Bureau now eyes Hansa as their next target, it’s time to acknowledge that these websites are here to stay, no matter which site the FBI busts next.
So what could law enforcement do moving forwards, if online markets are here to stay? Legal regulation is one option. It would help prevent users from being cheated, and ensure the quality of products. Having legal accountability placed on organisations removes the possibility of exit scams. Quality controls and public health messaging could be put in place to protect inexperienced buyers. The online marketplace already has rudimentary internal ratings and reviews. Consumers post reviews and rate products just like on eBay or Amazon which can crowd out any suspicious vendors. But regulation would both improve the legitimacy of these ratings and install minimal health and safety standards to all drugs sold on the platform.
Legal regulation isn’t a silver bullet to safeguarding people from the harms of drugs, but the benefits of regulating this market far outweigh the dangers of keeping it underground.
It’s time for governments to start talking about a realistic approach to drugs. AlphaBay was only a small stepping stone for the online business – it’s only a matter of time until the FBI accepts this and needs to consider regulating a legitimate marketplace.
Estia Ryan is an undergraduate at Durham University studying PPE. She is especially interested in drug culture among young people, and hopes to promote more nuanced drug education in schools.