Silk Road was the infamous marketplace that oversaw the sale of millions of drugs, allowing its operators to amass an enormous fortune. Yet the success of the illegal site wouldn’t last forever, with the FBI eventually shutting the site down. Silk Road was only accessible via the dark web, and was its first modern market. The story behind the site has been dramatised in the film ‘Deep Web’ – such was its impact on the dark web. In this article, we take a look at the story behind the marketplace, and the key people involved. This article is also this week’s Sunday Read.
Silk Road began operations in February of 2011. The site was only available on the dark web, and therefore required a special browser to access it – such as Tor. The name of the marketplace was taken from a once well-renowned trade route, most famously used by the Han Dynasty of the 1st Century. Little was known about the founder originally – with the individual purely known by the pseudonym ‘Dread Pirate Roberts’. It would eventually be revealed that ‘Dread Pirate Roberts’ was a man named Ross Ulbricht – an American national who was renowned for being anti-regulation.
The site was mainly used by consumers to sell and purchase drugs. Drugs being sold on the site ranged from stimulants to psychedelics to steroids among many others. While drugs accounted for the majority of products, other illicit services like fake driver licenses were offered. Some less clandestine products like art and cigarettes were on offer too. Assassinations and weapons were among the services barred from sale. The site operated like many other e-commerce sites, with products eventually sent through the US Mail service, with Bitcoins used to facilitate sales.
The site rose in popularity quickly, and had around 10,000 products on sale by 2013. Silk Road would take a commission on all sales. An article about Silk Road on the now-defunct blog Gawker led to the site gaining even further popularity. Statistics have suggested that the site attained over $1bn in revenue by the time it was shut down. Traffic mainly came from the United States, though many other nations used the site. Unsurprisingly, the site soon came to the attention of the FBI and the DEA.
Following considerable work, the FBI and DEA identified ‘Dread Pirate Roberts’ as Ross Ulbricht. Ulbricht was arrested and charged with money laundering, computer hacking, conspiracy to traffic narcotics and attempting to have six people killed. The site was shut down. 144,000 bitcoins (believed to belong to Ulbricht) – worth $28.5m at the time, were seized by the FBI in the aftermath of Ulrbricht’s arrest. At his trial, Ulbricht admitted to founding the website, and was convicted on multiple charges.
Ulbricht was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. An appeal against the sentence last year saw the original sentence upheld. He is currently incarcerated at Florence High. Ulbricht has considerable support – and a website urging his release has suggested there were no victims of Silk Road. Other individuals have also been convicted for crimes relating to Silk Road, with some prison sentences also handed out. Yet Ulbricht received a sentence that means he is unlikely to ever be released.
El martes 27 de marzo, Ross Ulbricht cumplió 34 años. Ha sido su quinto cumpleaños en prisión, condenado a dos cadenas perpetuas por creer en la libertad. ¡Larga vida al Pirata Roberts! #FreeRoss #HappyBirthday pic.twitter.com/FsIv9eMNr1
— AgoraChain (@AgoraChain) March 29, 2018
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Silk Road reappeared by late 2013, and would remain operational for around a year. Yet further arrests would follow, and the site has never quite returned to full functionality since. Other successor sites, and imitations, have come and gone – again, all have struggled to step into the shadow left behind by Silk Road. Ulbricht has admitted he ‘ruined his life’ by his actions. This case shows that the dark web isn’t as anonymous as it seems, and that engaging in any drug-selling has the potential to result in significant problems.