The Silk Road: The Drug Black Market of the Internet

In February of 2011, what was to become one of the largest black market internet dealer was founded. It was called “The Silk Road,” taking its name from the ancient and extensive trade route linking the East to the West. Conversely, the silk road of today’s marketplace has a very specific purpose: to buy and sell drugs anonymously across the internet.

The primary products sold by the Silk Road are illegal drugs (making up approximately 70% of the merchandise), although the website also sells other black market items such as fake IDs, and even some legal items such as jewelry or books. While Silk Road buyers and sellers deal mainly in illegal drugs, currently the only true product restrictions are on weapons and child pornography. The key to the success of this website was being run off of a Tor hidden service, an anonymity network which allows a user’s identity and location to remain hidden. The Silk Road also does not accept any direct forms of payments from debit or credit cards. Instead, users may purchase “bitcoins” from a third-party site, deposit the bitcoins to The Silk Road, and from there may use the bitcoins in all drug transactions. Bitcoins are virtual money that can be purchased or sold for real money, and can be used by various online providers.

In June of 2011, popular gossip and news website Gawker featured an article on the Silk Road, escalating the marketplace’s popularity—but also attracting the attention of the government. By 2012 the Silk Road had made $15 million in sales, and it is estimated that that amount has at least doubled in the last year. By mid 2013 there were nearly 1 million user accounts, 30% of customers being from the United States.

On October 2, 2013 the Silk Road market came to a screeching halt when it was seized and shut down by the FBI. The FBI had finally caught Ross William Ulbricht, styling himself as “The Dread Pirate Roberts,” who was the founder of the website. The DEA had been specifically trying to pin the Dread Pirate Roberts down since April 2012, when an undercover DEA first communicated with him about selling drugs. He was arrested on October 2 by the FBI, and immediately pled not guilty to the charges of drug trafficking, soliciting murder, facilitating computer hacking, and money laundering.

Two more Silk Road administrators were recently apprehended—Curtis Green and Jacob George IV. Green was responsible for being the “middle man” who would connect sellers to the website. He was assigned by Ulbricht to put the undercover DEA into contact with a buyer. Drugs were sent to Green’s home, and a warrant was issued for his arrest. Unlike Ulbricht, Green and George pled guilty.

However, the arrest of the Silk Road’s founder hasn’t kept the website offline for long. Silk Road 2.0 has just been launched, and users now wait anxiously for the website to be back up to its previous stature. Silk Road 2.0 now claims it will have an emphasized focus on security, and a way for users to retain their bitcoins in the event of trouble with the website. To ensure its continued success, Silk Road 2.0 will quickly need to reestablish its credibility in order to not be overtaken by its competitors such as Atlantis Market or Black Market Reloaded.

The new administrator of Silk Road 2.0 has chosen to also style himself as “The Dread Pirate Roberts.” The new DPR claims that precautions have been put in place so that if Silk Road 2.0 is ever shut down, it can be relaunched within 15 minutes. The DPR wants the new website to focus on quality control and peer review, and states that if the authorities would focus on finding the “real criminals” instead, he could focus on his philanthropic intents.

Upon the new launch, users were greeted with a rallying message, part of which states:

  • “It took the FBI two and a half years to do what they did. Divide, conquer, and eliminate was their strategy… but four weeks of temporary silence is all they got. And as our resilient community bounces back even stronger than ever before, never forget that they can only ever seize assets—they can never arrest our spirit, our ideas or our passion, unless we let them. We will not let them.”

The original Silk Road of China was a network along which goods, ideas, and culture were passed; in light of the new Dread Pirate Roberts’ emphasis on community and spirit, perhaps Silk Road 2.0 seeks to take itself beyond its purpose as a black market marketplace and more akin to its namesake.