Interrogating the Illicit

"An arms deal is only illegal because someone says it is," says a former arms smuggler turned arms expert in London. "There is a fine line between an intelligence agent and an arms smuggler," he emphasizes, "and that fine line is laws that people produce." Across the pond in Los Angeles, an ex-dining hall worker fired from her post at a liberal arts college in California speaks to the same paradox, "maybe the work was done in an illegal manner because I'm not documented, but I never did anything illegal except show up on time for work every day for 25 years. What part of the law says I'm illegal?" What these folks point to is the fact that more and more people operate in the shadows of the law because of a disconnect between the laws and lived realities of our time. This means that laws are creating more illegality and resulting in more people relying on what many refer to as 'illicit networks', the theme behind a major Google event last week. Google Ideas, in collaboration with the Council on Foreign Relations and the Tribeca Film Festival, hosted a three-day gathering July 16-18 to investigate the role of technology not in producing, but in understanding and mapping 'illicit networks,' marking a turning point in the conversation about the question of the 'illicit.'

What do an arms dealer, an agricultural worker, a sex worker, and a dining hall worker all have in common? Besides the fact that they were all in the same room in Westlake Village last week, they also all operate in the increasingly growing realm of grey areas in the continuum between legal/illegal, licit/illicit and formal/informal economies. While panic over supposedly increasing numbers of people engaging in illicit economies is resulting in advocacy toward the passage of new laws, people easily forget that new laws can easily create new forms of illegality, that the legal or licit economy depends often on the illicit, and that engagement in the illicit or informal economies is nothing new. What the Google Ideas summit did especially well is remind us that before we get up in arms about the dark side of globalization and technology producing new forms of illegality, we should consider that the realm of the illicit is sometimes produced and bolstered by our own laws and paradigms.

Increasingly stringent immigration and anti-trafficking laws have the opposite of their intended effect as some of the survivors of various sectors of illicit networks articulated. Namely, explained sex workers and survivors of forced labor across the globe, the laws policing borders and aiming to reduce trafficking that require increased bureaucracy in order to leave home countries actually result in more migrants relying on unscrupulous middlemen recruiters or less safe practices to migrate in order to make ends meet. When we don't take into consideration lived realities which are structured by poverty, decreasing employment opportunities, violence, or discrimination based on age, class, race or gender, or when we ignore the fact that major labor exporting countries such as the Philippines or Mexico rely on remittances to bolster their economies, we push for laws that make it harder to migrate. But what remains is the worker with the will to migrate, and the industries in other countries that continue to demand their labor -- such as domestic and care work in the U.S., which is increasingly populated by documented and undocumented migrants -- and rely on the grey areas of their legal status to create a flexible oversupply of labor. Before pushing anti-trafficking or anti-immigration legislature, lived experience should be taken into account.

The sheer draw of illicit networks for individuals, groups, and some states cannot be ignored. By virtue of operating without reference to law -- especially tax law -- these networks are perceived by those who use them to be more efficient and much more lucrative. They can create work opportunities where there are none in the formal economy, especially where poverty and debt bondage drive individuals to desperate measures. Technology has also contributed to the draw by making it easier for illicit actors to remain anonymous, increasing the security of certain illicit networks.

While the hues of grey increase rapidly, however, a few things are important to remember. First, the words we choose to label an activity as illegal, illicit or informal carry a lot of weight and help shape paradigms and policies that ensue about a particular topic. For instance, paying a babysitter 'under the table,' downloading music, subletting, or double parking during street cleaning, all of these fall squarely into the category of 'off the books' or 'informal' exchange. What is being done is legal, but it might be done in an illegal way (non-taxed, etc.). But, an undocumented worker cleaning your house or watching your children becomes classified as illegal, revealing racial undertones to our construction of the terms and engendering a type of hyperlegality when it comes to issues such as immigration.

Second, is the fact that the licit or legal often depends on the illegal, and what becomes labeled legal or illegal can be closely linked to incentives of those with power. Governments may have an incentive to legalize certain types of exchange, whether it is for arms, or other commodities that are manufactured through fraudulent labor practices, or even un-taxed exchange. Corporations are often off the hook when practicing forced labor, but anything involving the sex industry is under hyperscrutiny. Some types of labor remain conveniently labeled as 'illegal' so they can be exploited to feed demands of profit margins, while some states change their laws in order to maximize profits in other ways. And interconnections between the licit and illicit abound in numerous instances. For example, legal medical marijuana dispensaries in California are dependent on illegal growers throughout the region to supply their growing demand. Undocumented workers, often working in conditions of forced labor, pick most of the tomatoes or watermelons we eat in the U.S.

Before we panic about the increase in the size and numbers of 'illicit networks', and rush to pass new laws to stem this tide, we should consider the actual effects of the laws we intend to pass. And before we worry about mafia states taking over the world, we should remember that the illicit or informal economy has been around for centuries, and illicit networks provide possibilities for employment and survival for many populations on the margins. Before making the vulnerable more marginalized, we should consider the possibility of laws that can help protect persons who want or need protection, while not creating more laws and obstacles for the disenfranchised. And if the Google Ideas summit taught us anything, it's that technology can play a major role in empowering those most adversely affected by the downsides of illicit networks.