What was Silk Road?

Silk Road was an 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.[1] 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 users to pay or be paid for the goods and services listed on the site while staying anonymous.[2]

Ross Ulbricht, “at the time twenty-six years old…devised Silk Road as a free market economic experiment,” an open platform driven by its user community.[3] An idealistic entrepreneur, passionate about free markets 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.”[4] Based on the non-aggression principle, Silk Road allowed people to voluntarily buy and sell what they chose, as long as no third party was harmed. Some things were therefore prohibited, including stolen items, child pornography, counterfeits, and generally anything used to harm or defraud others.[5][6]

Many legal items were sold, such as books, antibiotics, art, clothing and electronics.[7] However, some vendors quickly realized that the site’s anonymity made it an ideal platform for selling illegal drugs, the most common transactions being for personal use amounts of cannabis.[8]

Excerpt from the government’s lead Silk Road investigator’s trial testimony.[6]
Legal categories listed on Silk Road
(trial exhibit 132)
Silk Road Seller’s Guide (trial exhibit 120)
Between 2011 and 2012, Carnegie Mellon University performed a comprehensive measurement analysis of the site and some of their findings include:

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

– Nicolas Christin, Carnegie Mellon University.[9]

Curtis Green, former SR admin:
“They say guns were on the site. There were zero guns on the site…It was one of my jobs to take that stuff down.”[10]

Because items 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.[11] 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.[12]

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.[13]

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. It, too, was taken offline,[14] and despite the draconian sentence Ross received, dozens of similar markets have sprung up since.[15]

References