Digital Dangers – Responding to the illicit wildlife trade online: what do we know?

Author
Stefania Grottola

The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime launched a policy paper on its new project Digital Dangers, funded by the Government of Norway. The project focuses on cyber wildlife crime and tries to address the increasingly rising use of digital platforms to advertise, purchase, and create new markets for illegal wildlife products.

The policy paper is based on original research on the nature and dynamics of online marketplaces. Furthermore, the aim of the paper is to strengthen networks for making a change by supporting investigative journalists to report on online illegal wildlife trafficking, and bringing together media and civil society to develop best practices on using the digital space for investigations and mobilisation. Digital Dangers is part of a broader project on online environmental crime markets, which brings together multilateral organisations and civil society, encompassing UNODC, INTERPOL, and the Global Initiative.

The session was opened by Ms Tuesday Reitano (Deputy-Director, GITOC) who described the genesis of the project which is based on four pillars. The first pillar is based on research focusing on the nature and dynamics of online marketplaces. The second pillar is based on the analysis of the challenges and opportunity for disruption. The third pillar focuses on strengthening networks for change by supporting investigative journalists to report on online illegal wildlife trafficking (IWT). The final pillar brings together the media and civil society organisations, to develop best practices for using the digital space as a means for investigation and mobilisation. Reitano explained that the project is based on a three dimensional approach: tools, understanding, and anticipation. She argued that the tools available are the information that we currently have about certain issues, which can reveal where we still lack knowledge and help in the anticipation of future unknown aspects. She stated that most of the knowledge about IWT online regards its challenges. She explained how they pursued the project, analysing the level of awareness and prioritisation, the legal framework in place, the financial regulations, the role of law enforcement and finally, the lessons learned from a comparative analysis of other illicit markets. The IWT is a frequent market that involves the use of common digital payment systems.

Her presentation was then complemented by Mr James Wingard (Co-Founder and Legal Director, Legal Atlas) who talked about the legal framework and the challenges related to illicit online wildlife trafficking. He explained the research approach that was used for the report, based on an analysis of the cybercrime law database, and on how jurisdiction enables cybercrime for prosecutors and investigators. Furthermore, he explained that there is a fundamental difference between how the law functions, and how we are able to operate on the Internet, which is addressed through the analysis of challenges such as the lack of advertisement and the parallelism of online and offline illicit activities. The IWT features a fluid and segregating environment: there are multiple actors in any given circumstance and many different jurisdictions that apply. However, legislation is still limited, especially with regards to specific behaviours and its application to online cases.

Focusing on the market analysis perspective, it is clear that the specificities of different markets show how the Internet and social media are increasingly becoming means for marketing. A species by species approach is needed because of the particular specificities of the supply chain, but an implemented consumer awareness mechanism is crucial to tackle the issues. Finally, with regards to the issue of awareness and educating consumers, the proposal is to engage journalists writing in local languages as well as cross-regional journalism training.

In conclusion, Tuesday stressed that it is crucial for the project to be part of a broader framework that follows the next steps: analysis, synthesis, outreach, engagement, and disruption.

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