What was Silk Road?

Much of the media presents sensationalized, inaccurate or false information about Silk Road.

An Anonymous E-Commerce Website

Silk Road was an anonymous e-commerce website like Amazon and eBay, but with an emphasis on user security and privacy. It used two key pieces of technology to this end: Tor and Bitcoin. Tor is a global network of computers that routes internet traffic in a way that is nearly impossible to trace. It allowed users to connect to Silk Road without revealing their identity or location and without their internet providers knowing about it. The cryptocurrency Bitcoin, little known at the time, allowed Silk Road users to pay or be paid for the goods listed on the site while staying anonymous.

Ross Ulbricht was 26 years old when he launched Silk Road as a free market economic experiment. An idealistic libertarian and entrepreneur, passionate about free markets, individual freedoms and privacy, he believed at the time that “people should have the right to buy and sell whatever they wanted, so long as they weren’t hurting anyone else.” Read his letter [PDF] to the judge.

Many vendors quickly realized that Silk Road’s anonymity made it an ideal platform for selling illegal drugs (the most common transaction being for personal use amounts of cannabis. See Carnegie Mellon University Study below).

Ross did not store, transport or have any contact with the items that were sold on the Silk Road website.

Ross Ulbricht about Silk Road

“Over countless hours, I have searched my soul and examined the misguided decisions I made when I was younger. I have dug deep and made a sincere effort to not just change what I do, but who I am. I am no longer the type of man who could break the law and let down so many.”

– Ross Ulbricht in letter to the president [PDF]

The Prohibited Items on Silk Road

Based on the libertarian non-aggression principle, Silk Road allowed consenting people to voluntarily buy and sell what they chose, as long as no third party was harmed. Despite what some media falsely reported, Silk Road had rules and some listings were prohibited, including stolen items, child pornography, counterfeits, and generally anything used to “harm or defraud” others.[1][2]

Weapons were only allowed on Silk Road for a brief period of time at the beginning (none of Ross’s charges are related to the distribution or sale of weapons). No evidence that actual gun sales occurred was introduced by the prosecution.

Silk Road had over 20 legal categories, and legal items such as original books, antibiotics, art, clothing and electronics were available.[3]

Curtis Green, former Silk Road admin:
“There were zero guns on the site…It was one of my jobs to take that stuff down.”
Silk Road Seller’s Guide (trial exhibit 120)
Excerpt from the government’s lead Silk Road investigator’s trial testimony.[4]
Legal categories listed on Silk Road
(trial exhibit 132)

Carnegie Mellon University Study

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University conducted a comprehensive analysis of the Silk Road website, gathering and analyzing data on a daily basis for eight months. Some of their findings include:

“The quantities being sold are generally rather small (e.g., a few grams of marijuana)” (p.12)

“‘Weed’ (i.e., marijuana) is the most popular item on Silk Road”

“Silk Road appears to have more inventory in ‘soft drugs’ (e.g., weed, cannabis, hash, seeds) than ‘hard drugs’ (e.g., opiates)”

Academic Studies

Because the items sold on Silk Road were shipped through the mail instead of exchanged in person, and were subject to a vendor rating system, several academic studies showed that, in the case of drug transactions, Silk Road “reduced the risk of street violence” and users were much less likely to be victimized.[5] Silk Road also had an escrow service and vendor rating system to protect users from fraud and promote friendly competition. This led to high levels of customer service and product quality.[6] There was also discussion of harm reduction practices and safe drug use on the Silk Road community forum, where a medical doctor was hired to give advice.[7]

Silk Road was taken offline on October 1, 2013, two and half years after it launched. Within weeks, Silk Road 2.0 was created and quickly grew larger than the original with more sales per month. It, too, was taken offline.[8] Despite the draconian sentence imposed on Ross, dozens of similar markets have sprung up since, showing that Ross’s sentence failed at deterring others.[9]

In stark contrast with Ross’s sentence, the creator of Silk Road 2.0 was given 64 months in the U.K. and the co-owner, an American citizen arrested in 2014 on the same charges as Ross’s, was released after spending just 13 days in U.S. custody. He faced only tax evasion charges and served no prison time. Read more at Sentencing Disparity.