The project explores how drug trade in the digital age is organized, and how that organization is affected by law enforcement crackdowns. The research will address a central paradox in sociological research about how information technology is changing society: while the internet is a force of liberation, e.g. because it helps people organize social activities across time and distance at low cost, the same communication technology extends existing power structures, e.g. through large-scale surveillance of dissenting citizens. By studying clashes between these two forces--in this case represented by internet-mediated crime on the one hand and law enforcement operations on the other--the project explores the unintended consequences of social control work in the digital age, as targeted groups struggle to overcome the efforts to halt them. Investigating the consequences of long-standing criminal justice methods in digital markets for banned goods and services will inform the ongoing debate on drug policy reform, and more broadly, expand the knowledge of the policing of social behavior. The proposed project will advance research on illegal markets ? directly through the undertaken research, and indirectly by making all quantitative data on trade patterns publicly available for other researchers.

In 2014, the Co-PI interviewed a British man who had been running a "largeish" drug dealing operation for "quite a few years", specializing in opium and cannabis. A recent shift to e-commerce had transformed his business. "Our goals are different [now]." In digital markets, "you can make structured plans, attainable goals, you can expand in a controlled manner." Another interviewee said he had no prior experience with drug trade before he started vending online. He explained at the time that he has no face-to-face interaction with customers or suppliers--he produces his chemical drugs in his home kitchen, processes all orders through the internet, and sends his meticulously packed products by conventional postal services. His plan is to remain strictly digital, he said. "I have no contact with any milieu where I can sell my products, outside of the internet. I have no desire to risk exposure in milieus the police might know of." The two vendors were active in a market that has since been shut down by law enforcement, but both continued to do business in other markets. This project asks, how is digital trade of illegal goods and services organized, and how are market actors adapting to law enforcement?s efforts to stop them? Drawing on quantitative data collected from digital markets for banned goods and services, the research details how the markets successfully organize trade on a scale that was, until recently, only possible for criminal syndicates with access to military, political and economic capital, and how the trade continued after several law enforcement crackdowns. To explain why and how vendors and customers continued their banned activities in the face of law enforcement, interviews with customers and vendors will be conducted.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
Standard Grant (Standard)
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Melanie Hughes
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Boston College
Chestnut Hill
United States
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