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] He believed that “people should have the right to buy and sell whatever they wanted, so long as they weren’t hurting anyone else.”[4] 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.[5][6][7]

“- And in fact, on the site it said…please do not list anything whose purpose is to harm or defraud, such as stolen credit cards, counterfeit currency, personal info, assassinations, weapons of mass destruction, chemical/bio weaponry, nukes and anything used to make them. Please do not post anything related to pedophilia…Right, that’s what it said on the site?”
“- That remained, yeah, throughout the site.”

– 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)
Some vendors quickly realized that the site’s anonymity made it an ideal platform for selling illegal drugs, most commonly small amounts of cannabis.[8] However, many legal items were also sold, such as books, antibiotics, art, gold and electronics.[9]

“The quantities being sold are generally rather small (e.g., a few grams of marijuana)”
– Nicolas Christin, Carnegie Mellon University.[10]

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.”

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 life sentence Ross received, dozens of similar markets have sprung up since.[15]