October 2017, London

The Silk Road – four years on

Selen Ozcan

San Francisco October 2013: Ross William Ulbricht, a 29-year old man from California, is arrested by the FBI in a place you would least expect, the San Francisco Public Library, accused of being the mastermind behind The Silk Road.

The Silk Road, known as the first modern dark net market, used to be an online platform with a similar set up to Amazon and EBay, selling everything from illegal drugs to forged documents, stolen credit cards and unregulated cigarettes. Set up in 2011, in two years’ time the Silk Road became the most popular stop on the dark web for heroin, methamphetamine, crack, cocaine, LSD and marijuana. With so many people accessing the Silk Road, I believe it was inevitable for the Dread Pirate Roberts to be found and arrested. Silk Road was not the first online platform to make drugs so accessible to everyone, and it certainly is not going to be the last as dozens of similar websites open every day on the dark web.

Silk Road

Operating under the hidden anonymity software Tor and using the untraceable currency Bitcoin, users were able to browse and purchase anything available anonymously, becoming undetectable by the law or the government for almost 3 years. It is estimated that Silk Road made over 1.7 billion dollars in sales over the span of 2 years, once being one of the largest contributors to the bitcoin economy. Because of the availability of untraceable and anonymous software such as Tor, along with Bitcoin, almost everyone can access websites like the silk road anonymously. Although law enforcement officers can see bitcoin transactions, they still cannot see what it is being used for so they cannot assume that there are being used to conduct illegal activates. In order to be able to monitor these transactions and see what is going on the dark web to prevent platforms like the silk Road to operate, I believe they should put laws in place and be able to trace and have access to the Bitcoin just like the banks and law has access to see any other forms of transactions.

The founder of the Silk Road has always been known as the Dread Pirate Roberts (DPR) and his reasoning behind creating the Silk Road was to produce a digital space that was beyond the grasp of the government regulations. He wanted to have an impact on the war on drugs by reducing the violence that came with it. Despite popular belief, I think that the Silk Road has actually to a certain extent helped in reducing violence. By selling through the platform, there was no contact between the buyer and the seller, removing the buyer from dark alley interactions and potentially dangerous sellers. By doing so, the Dread Pirate Roberts had managed to accomplish what he wanted, and if more websites like the silk road were accessible, I think the violence would no longer be that big of an issue because the interactions would be minimized.

Dread Pirate Roberts

In the interview given to Forbes by the Dread Pirate Roberts, he insisted that he did not in fact create the Silk Road as it was believed by the government and the FBI, but was handed the title by his predecessor and stated that he wouldn’t want to be the last Dread Pirate Roberts. He was always reluctant to give any interviews, mostly because the government and FBI were out to get him, however by actually going through with the interview taken by Forbes, I believe he only brought more attention to himself and the Silk Road which ultimately put him on the law enforcements radar even more so than before.

“The highest level of the government are hunting me, I can’t take any chances.” – DPR.

How the Silk Road affected the world

As the Silk Road Trial continued, every media outlet was looking to cover the story. The existence of the Dark Web and the opportunities that came with it was exposed to more people than ever before. Ross Ulbricht previously mentioned “up until now I’ve done my best to keep the Silk Road as low profile as possible, letting people discover it through word of mouth” however after the Silk Road takedown, dozens of other similar platforms would open which I believe was partially because of how much media coverage was done on it as now more than ever people and hackers became interested in going past the governments control, developing software and participating in these markets as they could see how much money there was to be made.

The Crime committed by Ross Ulbricht is considered to be cyber-crime, and he was charged with Narcotics trafficking, computer hacking, money laundering amongst several others. On November 21st, 2013, he applied for bail but was denied in the New York district court. Many were shocked by Ulbricht’s life sentence, believing it might be too harsh as it had no direct victims however the minimum sentence for his charges was 30 years. Although Silk Road didn’t have one specific victim, during trial families of the victims who have died of an overdose from drugs purchased through the Silk Road have pleaded for the harshest sentence for Ulbricht however it isn’t his direct fault that the people who purchased the drugs passed away of an overdose.

I believe that justice has been done in the case of the Silk Road however as he had in fact not done any direct harm to anybody I agree with the majority that think his sentence to life in prison was too harsh. The media have named it “the trial that never happened” because of how the judges handled his case, and I would agree. There was a lot of evidence that his defense could have brought forward, such as the two former FDA agents that stole the Silk Road’s bitcoins for their personal use and had access to the investigation, but were not allowed to use it as the judge deemed it irrelevant and didn’t give the defense a chance to bring forward their argument.

In May 2017, the New York court rejected Ross Ulbricht’s appeal, depriving him of ever being free again.

There will always be websites like the Silk Road on the dark market. According to a study in Australia there are over 100 different known crypto markets set up at this very moment, Silk road was just one of the many. Although the law enforcement is able to view Bitcoin transactions, they still cannot see what it is being used for. As the bitcoin is on the rise and there are hundreds of platforms available similar to the Silk Road, this shows that not much progress or research has been done to prevent cybercrime. In order to be able to have more control over cyber-crime, I believe a monitoring system should be put in place in order to strengthening the weak and limited existing laws.