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. 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.
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. He believed that “people should have the right to buy and sell whatever they wanted, so long as they weren’t hurting anyone else. The guiding philosophy of the site was that it’s no one else’s business who you are, or what you’re buying and selling as long as the transaction was voluntary and no third party was harmed.
Some things were therefore prohibited, including stolen items, weapons, child pornography, counterfeits and generally anything used to harm or defraud others. Some vendors quickly realized that the site’s anonymity made it an ideal platform for selling illegal drugs, most often small amounts of cannabis. However, many other items were also sold, such as books, antibiotics, art, gold, raw milk and lifesaving medication.
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, users were much less likely to be victimized. 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. 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.
Silk Road was taken offline 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, and despite the draconian life sentence Ross received, dozens of similar markets have sprung up since.
- ▲ – Appeal brief (page 13)
- ▲ – Ross’s sentencing letter addressed to Judge Forrest – May 22, 2015
- ▲ – Trial transcript, day 3 (page 462)
- ▲ – Working paper by Nicolas Christin from Carnegie Mellon University (“Traveling the Silk Road: A measurement analysis of a large anonymous online marketplace”, page 12)
- ▲ – Screenshot of legal categories listed on Silk Road as of October 1, 2013 (from government exhibit 132)
- ▲ – Academic study by Marie Claire Van Hout and Tim Bingham (“Responsible vendors, intelligent consumers: Silk Road, the online revolution in drug trading”)
- ▲ – Pre-sentencing letter from Joshua Dratel to Judge Forrest – May 15, 2015 (page 4)
- ▲ – Department of Justice press release – November 6, 2014 (“Operator of Silk Road 2.0 Website Charged in Manhattan Federal Court”)
- ▲ – Wired article – May 23, 2017 (“The Silk Road Creator’s Life Sentence Actually Boosted Dark Web Drug Sales”)