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.[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 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 libertarian and 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]

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

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.[5][6]

Silk Road had over 20 legal categories, and legal items such as original books, antibiotics, art, clothing and electronics were available.[7] However, many vendors quickly realized that the site’s anonymity made it an ideal platform for selling illegal drugs, the most common transaction being for personal use amounts of cannabis.[8] (See Carnegie Mellon University Study below.)

Curtis Green, former Silk Road admin:
“There were zero guns on the site…It was one of my jobs to take that stuff down.”[10]
Silk Road Seller’s Guide (trial exhibit 120)
Excerpt from the government’s lead Silk Road investigator’s trial testimony.[6]
Legal categories listed on Silk Road
(trial exhibit 132)

Carnegie Mellon University Study

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University conducted a comprehensive analysis of the website, gathering and analyzing data on a daily basis for eight months.[9] 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 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 with more sales per month. It, too, was taken offline.[14] Despite the draconian sentence imposed on Ross, dozens of similar markets have sprung up since, showing that Ross’s sentence failed at deterring others.[15]

In stark contrast with Ross’s sentence, the creator of Silk Road 2.0 was given 64 months in the U.K.[16] 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.[17] Read more at Sentencing Disparity.


  • [1] – TorProject.org
  • [2] – Bitcoin.org
  • [3] – Appeal brief (page 13)
  • [4] – Ross’s sentencing letter addressed to the judge – May 22, 2015
  • [5] – Silk Road Seller’s Guide (page 5, trial exhibit 120)
  • [6] – Trial transcript, day 3 (page 462)
  • [7] – Legal categories listed on Silk Road as of October 1, 2013 (trial exhibit 132)
  • [8] – Working paper by Nicolas Christin from Carnegie Mellon University (“Traveling the Silk Road: A measurement analysis of a large anonymous online marketplace,” page 12)
  • [9] – Working paper by Nicolas Christin from Carnegie Mellon University (“Traveling the Silk Road: A measurement analysis of a large anonymous online marketplace”)
  • [10] – Curtis Green Interview, The Crypto Show, August 9, 2018 (“Never Before Heard Information About The Silk Road by Silk Road Admin Curtis Green and Promether,” 22m42s)
  • [11] – Academic study by Marie Claire Van Hout and Tim Bingham (“‘Silk Road’, the virtual drug marketplace: A single case study of user experiences,” page 6)
  • [12] – Academic study by Marie Claire Van Hout and Tim Bingham (“Responsible vendors, intelligent consumers: Silk Road, the online revolution in drug trading,” page 1)
  • [13] – Pre-sentencing letter from Joshua Dratel to the judge – May 15, 2015 (page 4)
  • [14] – Department of Justice press release – November 6, 2014 (“Operator of Silk Road 2.0 Website Charged in Manhattan Federal Court”)
  • [15] – Forbes article, August 11, 2016 (“Illicit Online Drug Sales Triple In Absence Of Silk Road”)
  • [16] – Motherboard article, April 12,2019 (“Silk Road 2 Founder Dread Pirate Roberts 2 Caught, Jailed for 5 Years”)
  • [17] – Bitcoin.com article, June 1,2019 (“Plea Bargain Means Silk Road 2 Admin Will Likely See No Prison Time”)