Tag Archives: Export Controls

A Terrorist’s Stockroom?: The Effectiveness of e-Marketplace Prohibited Item Policies

Christina Krawec, Research Associate (christina.1.krawec@kcl.ac.uk)

Introduction

In attempts to regulate the trade of hazardous materials used in explosives or weaponry, internet marketplaces such as eBay, Amazon, and Alibaba have all implemented seller policies on their sites. Alibaba, for example, has a list of 410 radioactive, poisonous, toxic, flammable, explosive, and ozone-depleting substances that are prohibited from being listed.[1] Some work has been done to illustrate that, despite these regulations, sellers are able to sell hazardous materials. For example, Raymond A. Zilinskas and Philippe Mauger established in a 2015 study that biotechnology of concern could be acquired by non-state individuals via Alibaba.[2] Similarly, eBay has a list of 16 “explosives precursors” that are also restricted.[3] Despite eBay’s efforts to prohibit these substances, listings for some can still be found. This study shows that eBay’s listing policies are not effective in deterring users from selling what the site considers to be hazardous material.

Methodology

Table 1 shows the availability of eBay’s restricted explosives materials across eBay, Amazon, and Alibaba. A listing was included in this table if the advertised substance was over 95% pure (if the purity was listed and with the exception of hydrogen peroxide), and was included regardless of quantity, physical state (e.g. liquid or solid), or marketed use. Therefore, laboratory-grade and food-grade substances in small quantities were included. This was done because eBay’s policy does not provide detail regarding the nature of the prohibited substances; it simply lists the names of the restricted compounds. Furthermore, this study assumed that the listings were truthful about the product being sold, which may not have been the case. Listings were also only included in this table if their advertised material was in stock and available for any user to purchase.

Table 1: Listings of restricted explosives precursor materials as of 4 January 2017

Explosives precursor restricted by eBay Listings on eBay Listings on Amazon Listings on Alibaba
Aluminium/aluminum powder 4 10+ 1000+
Ammonium nitrate* 0 10+ 5+
Calcium ammonium nitrate 0 0 100+
Calcium nitrate 0 10+ 100+
Hydrogen peroxide above 12% weight by weight 0 10+ 100+
Magnesium nitrate hexahydrate 3 2 100+
Magnesium powder 0 0 100+
Nitric acid** 0 0 100+
Nitromethane 0 0 50+
Potassium chlorate 10+ 0 2000+
Potassium nitrate (saltpetre) 10+ 10+ 1500+
Potassium perchlorate 0 0 500+
Sodium chlorate 3 0 1000+
Sodium nitrate 4 8 2000+
Sodium perchlorate 0 0 300+
Sulphuric/sulfuric acid 6 10+ 700+

*Material also prohibited by Alibaba                                                        **Material also prohibited by Amazon                                                                 Note that there were hundreds, if not thousands, of results for some of these chemicals. The + indicates that at least that number of listings was found, but there were so many results that there may have been more.

Findings

For the purposes of this study, searching for the prohibited materials on Amazon and Alibaba serves as a comparison of availability. Amazon, in its listing policies, has a section on explosives, but does not discuss precursors. The page does, interestingly, list nitric acid as a prohibited hazardous material, but this is the only substance that has crossover with eBay’s list.[4] In addition, the only chemical in both Alibaba’s and eBay’s lists is ammonium nitrate. Otherwise, Alibaba has thousands of legitimate listings for explosives precursors. It is notable that these lists do not correspond with internationally-recognised control lists, including those published by the export control regimes.

For Amazon, there were more listings than were included in the table. These listings either had items that were “currently unavailable” in which there was no timeline for restocking, were temporarily sold out, or they were only available for purchase by Amazon Business accounts. For example, there were over ten listings for calcium nitrate available for any user to buy on Amazon. However, with an Amazon Business account, at least five more listings became available. If a non-state actor is able to fabricate a front company and successfully create an Amazon Business account, then this could be an effective means of opening more pathways for hazardous material acquisition.

The availability of these substances despite their restricted nature illustrates eBay’s need for further oversight and more detailed policies. While monitoring e-marketplace activity is difficult due to the size of the user base and speed of transactions, the current policy does not deter users from listing certain substances. One difficulty arises from the dual-use nature of these goods. For example, potassium nitrate (saltpetre) is used in the process of curing meat, but can also be used to make gunpowder. The question of controlling the sale of dual-use items has long been a challenge for the international export control regime. How can e-marketplaces prove that buyers are obtaining saltpetre for their cured pork and not for the development of explosives?

Recommendations

These observations lead to possible recommendations for the improvement of e-marketplace prohibition policies.

  1. At present, listed chemicals can be bought by anyone on eBay. If the site were to restrict certain substances from being bought by anyone without a registered business (as is the policy on Amazon), this might lower the possibility of an individual with ill intent to obtain an explosives precursor. However, implementation of this policy would require careful oversight: it could also restrict innocent users from acquiring these materials for legitimate purposes.
  2. eBay could consider adding more detail to its restricted product policy. Determining an allowed quantity and purity would make the policy clearer; adding a section describing the dual-use nature of the goods would also be informative to eBay users. Having clearer policies does not solve the issue, but more detail would at least provide education for the eBay community.
  3. Standardising naming conventions would allow e-marketplaces to more easily track prohibited chemicals being posted on the site. On Amazon, eBay, and Alibaba, chemicals can be found by their written name, their formula, or their Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS) identification number. In many cases, chemicals are only listed by their written name. There are so many variations to names that it would be easier to identify listings for specific substances if they were required to include a searchable CAS number as well. The e-marketplaces could also screen postings against lists of keyword terms. In addition to preventing listings where the item might be prohibited, such an approach could be used to identify account holders who are intent on engaging in prohibited activity. In this context, retailers could be encouraged to submit some form of “suspicious activity report” similar to those used in the financial sector.

The issue of selling weapons precursor materials online has no easy answers. However, increasing awareness of these issues and the imperfections in current policies allows further discussions to be made. The international export control regime will continue to struggle with the case of dual-use goods, and e-marketplaces should be aware of the difficulties they face as part of the ongoing challenge.

[1] “Prohibited Chemicals Reference,” Alibaba.com Rules Center, 2016.

[2] Raymond A. Zilinskas and Philippe Mauger, “E‐commerce and biological weapons nonproliferation,” EMBO, 2015.

[3] “Hazardous, restricted, or regulated materials,” eBay Rules & Policies, 2017.

[4] “Hazardous & Dangerous Items,” Amazon Seller Central, 2017.

Sources:

“Hazardous & Dangerous Items.” Amazon Seller Central. 2017. Accessed January 4, 2018. https://sellercentral.amazon.com/gp/help/external/200164570.

“Hazardous, restricted, or regulated materials.” eBay Rules & Policies. 2017. Accessed January 4, 2018. http://pages.ebay.com/help/policies/hazardous-materials.html.

“Prohibited Chemicals Reference.” Alibaba.com Rules Center. 2016. Accessed January 3, 2018. http://rule.alibaba.com/rule/detail/2069.htm?spm=a271m.8038972.0.0.cobpgz.

Zilinskas, Raymond A., and Philippe Mauger. “E‐commerce and biological weapons nonproliferation.” EMBO reports 16, no. 11 (2015): 1415-1420.

eBay, Alibaba, and Amazon search engines and results.

Brexit and Strategic Trade Controls: key implications

Quentin Michel and Ian Stewart

On 24/25 April, Quentin Michel from the University of Liege and Ian Stewart from King’s College London convened a small group of government officials, academics, and industry practitioners with the purpose of examining the implications of Brexit on strategic trade controls. The workshop was conducted under Chatham House rules with participation in private capacities. The purpose of this short article is to capture the key impressions and issues identified by the hosts. This document does not reflect the views or comments of any specific participant.

The main finding of the workshop was that the exit of the UK from the European Union strategic trade control system will have an impact that goes far beyond trade control law regulations and procedures. Much attention was given to the implications of the trading arrangement that will replace the UK’s access to the ‘single market’. Concerns abound that board tariffs will be adopted by both the EU and UK. However, while the issue of export controls will likely receive scant public attention, inadequate arrangements could have a negative impact that is even more significant than the effect of tariffs. The EU, and separately the UK, must devise mechanisms to ease transfer and, more specifically, licensing of dualuse goods after Brexit. It is unclear presently whether the EU will have the capacity to take the steps required, while also conducting an unrelated review of its own dual-use items export control Regulation, 428/2009. Considering the usual two years delay necessary to finalise the process to adopt a regulation, it is strongly recommended to integrate already the Brexit into the review process.

During the course of the workshop, numerous specific implications were identified. These can broadly be categorised into five areas:

  • The legal basis and the ‘Norway issue’: Before addressing other issues related to Brexit, an answer is needed on what legal basis the UK will use to implement export controls in the future. One alternative would be that the UK will adopt national legislation (initially through the ‘Great Repeal Act’) implementing the requirements of the international export control regimes directly, rather than drawing on the EU regulation applicable in all EU Member States. If this is the case, UK and EU export controls can thus be expected to diverge over time after Brexit. The alternative would be for the UK to align systematically its national provisions to the EU regulation, perhaps following the path of Norway. However, Norway at present cannot take part in EU working groups on export controls and therefore has not possibilities to defend its views when the regulation is amended or updated. Moreover, Norway is excluded from information sharing arrangements whereas that will change probably soon.
  • Harmonisation of controls and competition: There is a real possibility that EU and UK export controls will diverge post-Brexit and that this could result in unhealthy competition and a ‘race to the bottom’ in terms of controls. This might could result in an increase in undesirable transactions, for example. It could also distort markets, particularly if the EU moves forward with the adoption of an autonomous control list in relation to human security issues, as proposed by the European Commission under the recast review, which the UK did not adopt.
  • Information sharing: trade facilitations between States and effective implementation of export controls is contingent on various types of information being shared. This includes not only information on licence denials, which is necessary to prevent ‘undercutting’ and a race to the bottom, but also more sensitive intelligence or other information related to specific transactions. In many cases such information sharing could take place through other channels. However, there would be specific advantages to a structured exchange of information in relation to denial notifications and the updating of any relevant control lists. Ideally, the UK will continue to have access to the DUeS platform.
  • Licensing conditions: The UK is to leave the single market which will mean that the transfer of all strategic items will require licensing to and from the UK and not only a limited number (e.g. Annex IV of Dual Use Regulation 428/20009). This will affect a substantial range of goods and sectors. A solution will be required to allow such items to be easily transferred while minimising the burden on industry. The easiest option might well be to create ‘general’ or ‘open’ licences. However, this would generally require companies to report transfers to authorities and be subject to audit, which might in itself be a substantial burden for industry and licensing authorities. Alternatives include reliance on individual licences (which could be burdensome for companies and authorities) or the creation of some new mechanism intended to record transfers in a low-burden way.
  • Technical capacity: Presently, it is the UK that drafts the EU control list. The UK also provides vital expertise and advice to EU Member States in assessing technical parameters of certain items. While the UK might still be in a position to provide such support post-Brexit, the EU27 might nonetheless need contingency plans.

An additional key area of consideration relates to sanctions. Presently, the UK is a principle actor in relation to EU sanctions. It is understood that the UK has produced several of the evidentiary packages that have been used in relation to specific sanctions designation listings, for example. As one of the largest global economies (equal in size to the 20 smallest EU States) and as a central player in the global financial system, UK adherence to sanctions has been central to their effectiveness. Any move away from harmonisation of sanctions with the European Union could thus undermine either common foreign policy goals or the effectiveness of sanctions. Moreover, practical questions related to sanctions such as who will maintain evidentiary packages for EU sanctions submitted by the UK before Brexit and who will produce evidentiary packages for EU sanctions in the future, if not the UK, must also be considered.

Two important final questions emerged from the discussions. The first concerns how the EU will devise a response to the issues outlined above. It seems apparent that only a group of officials, such as the Council’s Dual-use Working Party, will have the necessary expertise to examine these issues in depth and devise a policy for future dual-use trade between the EU and UK. The second question, which is related, is whether it is feasible to advance both Brexit and the recast of the EU export control regulation (428/2009) in parallel. Given the sheer volume of the dual-use trade implications of Brexit and the fact that the recast, which has now been underway for more than 4 years is the main way in which the EU could adopt a new or amended general export licence for the UK, it seems at the least that it would be useful to consider Brexit issues as part of the recast