The Dark Side of ‘The Silk Road’

Silk Road was an online black market and the first modern darknet market, best known as a platform for selling illegal drugs. As part of the dark web,it was operated as a Tor hidden service, such that online users were able to browse it anonymously and securely without potential traffic monitoring. The website was launched in February 2011; development had begun six months prior. Initially there were a limited number of new seller accounts available; new sellers had to purchase an account in an auction. Later, a fixed fee was charged for each new seller account.

In October 2013, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) shut down the website and arrested Ross Ulbricht under charges of being the site’s pseudonymous founder “Dread Pirate Roberts”. On 6 November 2013, Silk Road 2.0 came online, run by former administrators of Silk Road. It was also shut down, and the alleged operator was arrested on 6 November 2014 as part of the so-called “Operation Onymous”. Ulbricht was convicted of eight charges related to Silk Road in the U.S. Federal Court in Manhattan and was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.

Ross Ulbricht passport photo via Wikipedia. Public domain, 2012

The Dark Side of the Web

Ulbricht’s “eBay for drugs” was available on the Darknet, but what exactly is the Darknet? Physically, the Darknet is no different from the internet.

Anyone running a website or online shop needs a server, with software installed, connected to the internet. Each computer connected to the internet is automatically labeled with a unique identifiable number, the internet Protocol, or IP, address. The whole thing is about as anonymous as a home address publicly listed in a city register.

On the Darknet, however, users download and use a software called Tor, which uses a complex intermediary server architecture to hide both the IP address of the server and that of the users surfing on it. Using a Tor browser, people can access the internet anonymously. They can visit traditional websites like Facebook without leaving a digital footprint. Or they can go to a site on the Darkweb. These sites can’t use normal domain names, such as “.com” or “.io”; they use a single identifier called “.onion.” Some countries, like Turkey, feel so threatened by this, they prohibit any anonymization service and have made attempts to block the use of Tor altogether.


While the Darknet offers protection to activists and others experiencing human rights violations, its inherent anonymity naturally has attracted criminal behavior as well — like Ross Ulbricht. After all, with the Darknet, authorities can’t locate Silk Road’s server or the buyers and sellers who use the marketplace.

Silk Road’s logistics were ingenious. Many purchases went through the good old U.S. Postal Service, which offered recipients plausible deniability. Using a government entity like the USPS was probably particularly gratifying to a Libertarian like Ulbricht, who believed the state should provide the infrastructure for its citizens. For his business, it delivered.

Evidence entered into the record of Ross Ulbricht’s Federal trial, depicting a flowchart of Silk Road’s payment system. Source: Wikimedia/Public domain, 2015.

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