#18: SILK ROAD MARKETPLACE
Silk Road was the infamous marketplace that oversaw the sale of millions of illicit drugs on the dark web. Its operators subsequently amassed an enormous fortune. Yet their site wouldn’t last forever, with the FBI eventually able to shut the site down. Silk Road gained notoriety for being the dark web’s first online marketplace, and for being dramatised in the film ‘Deep Web’. In this article, we take a look at the history of Silk Road, and the history behind the infamous marketplace.
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 – who operated in 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 his views against regulation.
The site was mainly used by visitors as a means to sell and purchase drugs. A wide range of drugs were sold on the site, with stimulants, psychedelics and steroids just some of the narcotics offered. 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 Bitcoin used to facilitate sales.
The site rose in popularity quickly, and had around 10,000 products on sale by 2013. Silk Road would take commission on all sales conducted on the site – allowing them to build a fortune. 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.
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.