Silk Road

From SI410
Jump to: navigation, search

Silk Road (now-defunct anonymous online marketplace) was a premiere black market that operated on the dark web. The dark web is an unindexed part of the internet that cannot be located with conventional browsers or search engines. The hidden site could only be accessed through Tor browsers that encrypted identity and location.[1] The website launched in February of 2011 after only four months of development. The marketplace performed anonymous transactions using the crypto currency Bitcoin. Online forums discussing Bitcoin advertised the site and instructed users on how to locate it with a Tor browser.[2]

Initially, the opertis mundi of Silk Road was the freedom of information and anonymous access to goods. The site's main products were psychedelic and nootropic, brain enhancing drugs. This included cannabis, mescaline, and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD, blotter acid). A book club section shared censored literature such as ‘The Anarchist Cookbook,’ that gave detailed recipes on making bombs, drugs and operating weapons.[3] The rapid success of the site opened the floodgates to other illegal products. Silk Road hosted a limited number of sellers who offered 603 different narcotics and prescription drugs, as well as a page for weapons.[4]

Silk Road Homepage with products and reviews


The functionality of Silk Road relied on the informational environment, or infosphere, created by community members.[5][6]Sellers built reputations with review systems generated by users. Buyer transactions were anonymous with Bitcoin. Products were received without detection by following the shipping guidelines laid out by the sellers, and often received inside greeting cards or falsely decorated packages.[7]

The success of Silk Road was unforeseen by its developers. The increased traffic on Bitcoin’s network doubled the currency's value within the first six months of marketplace sales.[8] The site hosted thousands of sellers and more than 100,000 buyers who generated 9.5 million Bitcoin (BTC) sales at a time when only 11.75 million BTC existed.[9] In 2013, the amount of BTC activity converted to $435 million dollars (USD) with a peak of $40 million USD the month of September.[10]

Arrest and Trial of Scott Ubricht

In October of 2013, the Federal Bureau of Investigation shut down the Silk Road website and seized funds worth $100 million USD. However, another 435 thousand BTC, worth $955 million USD at the time, remained unaccounted.[11] The FBI joined three other agencies to arrest 29-year old Ross Ulbricht of San Francisco, California. They identified Ulbricht as “The Dread Pirate Roberts”, Silk Road’s founder.[12]

A month after the arrest former administrators of Silk Road launched a second version of the site. It was abruptly shut down and resulted in additional arrests in 2014.[13] Ulbricht was convicted in federal court of seven felony charges and given two life sentences with an additional 40 years. He was ordered to pay $183 million USD in restitution. [14]Remaining funds from Silk Road were located and in a private digital wallet, and sued for forfeiture by the Department of Justice in 2020. Although Silk Road existed less than three years, the government shutdown and seizure totaled $1 Billion USD.[15]

Ethical Concerns

The aftermath of Silk Road's shutdown resulted in a series of ethical dilemmas that include both economic and legislative concerns. The news of Silk Road’s shutdown runs parallel to Bitcoin’s price drop of over 20 percent on internet exchanges. Bitcoin was only able to recover 10 percent of that loss over the next quarter. Although a direct link cannot be explicitly made, media outlets reported that the arrest had two negative effects on the new technology. First, it questioned the legitimacy of cryptocurrency by associating it with illegal activities. Secondly, the unprecedented government seizure of a billion dollars scared off investors of bitcoin and any other legitimate crypto start up company.[16]

The site’s infosphere hosted illegal trading that advocacy groups, such as the Drug Policy Alliance, viewed as a safer alternative to the street violence created by the global war on drugs. In Ulricht’s defense statement, his lawyers cited Drug Policy Alliance by writing that The Silk Road was a “peaceful alternative” to street transactions that often incurred deadly violence. The Federal government countered this argument by stating that aiding the supply of drugs was as criminal as the manufacturing and sale. The United States Department of Justice claimed three individuals across the United States who were found dead from Silk Road drugs, including one overdose in front of a computer used to access The Silk Road.[17] However, no victims were named in Ross Ulbricht’s criminal trial. Of the five convictions, none of the charges were violent, and Ulbricht was a first time offender. These points are cited by Freeross[.]org, an advocacy group working towards Ulbricht's appeal and release from federal prison. The group collects donations and hosts an online petition claiming that Ulbricht’s double life sentence was excessive punishment. The website’s header quotes Noam Chomsky referring to the case as a “shocking miscarraige of justice.”[18]

Ross Ulbricht wrote to Judge Forrest before his sentencing to explain his libertarian viewpoint and the ethical intentions of his website. He wrote that The Silk Road was about giving people the freedom to make their own choices, to pursue happiness and live life however they saw fit. Ulbricht and his supporting advocacy groups acknowledged the website’s illegal drug sales, but highlighted its original intentions of providing uncensored and unlimited access to information. [19] Ulbricht spoke out for the first time via telephone at the 2021 Bitcoin conference in Miami, Florida. Ulbricht praised the opportunities for freedom and innovation created by Bitcoin. A petition to reduce his sentence has been supported by 250 organizations and has accumulated 435 thousand signatures on Change[.]org.[20]


  1. Rafter, Dan. “What Is the Dark Web? the Dark Web Defined and Explained.” Norton,
  2. Leger, Donna Leinwand. “How FBI Brought down Cyber-Underworld Site Silk Road.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 15 May 2014,
  3. Davis, M. (2021, September 30). The contentious history of the Anarchist Cookbook. Big Think. Retrieved February 11, 2022, from
  4. Norrie, Justin, and Asher Moses. “Drugs Bought with Virtual Cash.” The Sydney Morning Herald, The Sydney Morning Herald, 11 June 2011,
  5. “Silk Road: Anonymous Marketplace. Feedback Requested :).” Bitcoin Forum - Index, 1 Mar. 2011,
  6. Floridi, Luciano. “A Look into the Future Impact of ICT on Our Lives.” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2007, doi:10.2139/ssrn.3844463.
  7. Norrie, Justin, and Asher Moses. “Drugs Bought with Virtual Cash.” The Sydney Morning Herald, The Sydney Morning Herald, 11 June 2011,
  8. Norrie, Justin, and Asher Moses. “Drugs Bought with Virtual Cash.” The Sydney Morning Herald, The Sydney Morning Herald, 11 June 2011,
  9. Fernholz, Tim. “Silk Road Collected 9.5 Million Bitcoin-and Only 11.75 Million Exist.” Quartz, Quartz, 2013,
  10. Hern, Alex. “US Seizes $1bn in Bitcoin Linked to Silk Road Site.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media,
  11. Hern, Alex. “Silk Road Bitcoins Worth $1bn Change Hands after Seven Years.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 4 Nov. 2020,
  12. Greenberg, Andy. “Silk Road Creator Ross Ulbricht Sentenced to Life in Prison.” Wired, Conde Nast, 29 May 2015,
  13. Love, Dylan. “Drug Users Rejoice: The Silk Road Is Back up and Running.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 6 Nov. 2013,
  14. “Ross Ulbricht, Aka Dread Pirate Roberts, Sentenced to Life in Federal Prison for Creating, Operating 'Silk Road' Website.” ICE, 2015,
  15. Hern, Alex. The Guardian, Guardian News and Media,
  16. Bevan, karen. (2013, October 3). Bitcoin value drops after FBI shuts Silk Road Drugs Site. BBC News. Retrieved February 11, 2022, from
  17. Bearman, J. (2020, January 8). The untold story of silk road, part 2: The fall. Wired. Retrieved February 11, 2022, from
  18. Ross Ulbricht - first-time, nonviolent offender. Free Ross. (2022, January 8). Retrieved February 11, 2022, from
  19. 1:14-cr-00068-KBF (Ars Technica May 22, 2015).
  20. Redman, Jamie. “Silk Road Founder Ross Ulbricht Speaks Publicly for the First Time since 2013.” Bitcoin News, 13 June 2021,