“Dark Commerce,” by Louise Shelley.


The author of a new book on global illicit trade said it carries an implicit message for general counsel: The problem is greater than you think, and you need to be doing more to tackle it.

Louise Shelley is the author of “Dark Commerce: How a New Illicit Economy is Threatening Our Future” from Princeton University Press. Shelley, director of the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia, said in a recent interview that her book focuses not only on traditional criminal actors but also on corporations and their role as facilitators of illicit trade.

The book describes how illicit trade undermines governance, the economy, health, the social order and environmental sustainability in all regions of the globe.

“As I like to say, there are not enough individual criminals to do this much harm to the planet,” Shelley said.

She cited numerous examples, such as use of supply chains that provide conflict minerals, environmentally protected materials or commodities made by exploited labor; or online platforms that sell counterfeit goods, illegal drugs, weapons and even children; or everyday mail service companies that routinely deliver illicit items; and financial service organizations that repeatedly turn a blind eye to money laundering.

Her book names companies. Saying it’s not just the “dark net” that aides criminals, the book alleges many segments of social media, like Facebook and Instagram, have been used to traffic illegal goods and people. “A study found that 70 different types of arms were traded on Facebook out of Libya,” Shelley said.

A Facebook spokeswoman told Corporate Counsel, “It is against Facebook’s Community Standards to post material that coordinates human trafficking and human smuggling [or other illicit acts] and this type of material will be removed when reported to us.” She did not respond to a request for an interview to elaborate.

A spokeswoman for Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, offered more information, citing a written policy that states, “Human trafficking has no place on Facebook and Instagram. Our policies make it very clear that human trafficking and smuggling are not allowed. We remove content that threatens or promotes sexual violence or exploitation. This includes the sexual exploitation of minors, and sexual assault. We have a team of professional investigators and work with agencies across the world that seek to identify and rescue victims and bring perpetrators to justice.”

The spokeswoman said, “We have team of 30,000 people on our safety and security team, and about half work 24 hours a day, seven days a week and in 40 different languages to take such reports. We also use artificial intelligence to help us find and remove images, or known exploitative material, especially involving children.”

She said the company works with groups around the world to combat criminal use of the website, including the National Human Trafficking Resource Center in Washington, D.C.

Shelley said the corporate and government regulators’ response to the abuse of new technology has been “fragmented and slow.”

She also said companies, including technology companies, need to look harder at their supply chains. “Think of coltan, a mineral that goes into cellphones and electronics, is often mined by forced labor for terrorist organizations in the [Democratic Republic of the Congo]. I can tell you I want a cellphone that is not covered in blood,” she said.

Shelley also cites prominent banks that have been caught in misconduct, including several U.S. banks, Germany’s Deutsche Bank, Great Britain’s HSBC, and most recently Danish Danske Bank’s branch in Estonia.

So what do general counsel and their companies need to be doing differently?

Shelley said they need to take more responsibility for the problem, do more to monitor their supply chains; and mine their data more deeply to develop better algorithms to spot and stop illicit conduct. In short, she said they need to spend more money on stopping illicit commerce and less on lobbying Congress over regulations.

Addressing the complex sources of illicit trade in the world, she said, will require a collaboration of corporations, governments and non-government groups.

Shelley said a general counsel needs to say to his or her company, “Listen, we may not be in violation of criminal laws, but we are part of a greater network, and we need to be more vigilant and do more to understand our role in this.”