The internet has always been the wild west, a new frontier always pushing the verge of what’s possible. Its exciting but just like the wild west, it can be a little dangerous. Eager entrepreneurs pioneer new technology, ways to communicate with one another, or even simulate events in real life. So what about buying and selling drugs online? Online marketplace The Silk Road seeked to do just that; that is until the FBI seized it and charged its creator early last week.
The internet as most know it it is just the tip of the iceberg. Most of what you can find on google is only the first small layer of the internet, the rest is hidden down below. This is what is known as the deep web. To access the deep web you need a special browser called TOR and knowledge of what to look for. Most of it is inconsequential like old out of date websites, file servers, hidden newsgroups, but hidden amongst this data are clandestine sites like The Silk Road.
The Silk Road created in February 2011, was an anonymous ebay or amazon for drugs, there was buyer and seller feedback, store fronts, product recommendations. It was started to facilitate drug transactions in a safe anonymous sandbox. The creator sought to create an environment where there was no violent criminal element, cartels, or impure drugs, a noble idea in theory. You could browse and buy anything from marijuana, MDMA, Rx pills, to harder drugs like meth, heroin, and opium, even legal things like coffee and cigarettes, anything under the sun. Most sellers would be from overseas, claiming to be as close to the source as possible. Users would have their own encrypted account and could communicate through encrypted messages that only the sender and receiver could see with a special shared password; messages would then auto delete leaving no paper trail. Once ordered your package would arrive discreetly shipped by your country’s postal service delivered to your door, no picking up from some shady dealer on a street corner. So how would you pay for items? Surely any online financial transaction could be tracked by law enforcement. This is where bitcoins came in, The Silk Road couldn’t have existed without bitcoins.
Bitcoins are a new form of decentralized currency solely existing in a digital format, it is not backed by any financial institution or state, a first for any currency. Bitcoin was started as an idea by a computer programer or group of programmers and mathematicians going by the pseudonym “Satoshi Nakamoto” and in just a year later the cryptocurrency protocol was introduced. Using an open source program where anyone can join using peer-to-peer communication, Bitcoins can be traded, bought, and sold by users with a neutral institution acting as escrow. Bitcoins are “made” by computers running and solving complex algorithms. They call this bitcoin mining, once an algorithm is solved bitcoins are generated. Usually 25 bitcoins are produced for each algorithm solution which generally takes about 10 minutes. Huge networks are set up and are dedicated only to mining bitcoins. To continue with the wild west theme this is just like 1800’s gold mining. It takes work and time to mine the ‘gold’, the incentive is that you find gold, or generate bitcoins as a reward which you can keep or sell. At current bitcoin prices the whole network of bitcoin miners generate 668,000$ of bitcoins per day. There is a set cap or ceiling of 21 million bitcoins in circulation which will be reached in 2140, at which point no more bitcoins can be mined.
Bitcoins are an emerging financial market and is being looked at for investment opportunities as well as a worldwide common currency. The Winklevoss twins, of Facebook fame have invested a few million in bitcoins. It is not quite a sound investment yet as the price per bitcoin tends to fluctuate wildly, also its only financial merit is deemed by those who use it. If everyone jumped ship and no longer wanted to use bitcoins the currency would be worth it.
Without going too much further down the technical rabbit hole then bitcoins are the only currency accepted and used at The Silk Road. Bitcoins are completely anonymous and are unique and secured only to you. So you buy a pack of bitcoins usually from a bitcoin miner network with local currency. For extra security bitcoins can then be laundered and routed through multiple independent bitcoin transaction facilitators. Each route is encrypted and secured making it much more difficult to track where and who bought the bitcoins in the first place. Your order is then paid in bitcoins and your drugs are then shipped to you. Even though The Silk Road is the largest circulator of bitcoins, users urge that it is a legitimate currency that can be used for legitimate purposes.
So how did The Silk Road get taken down? Well it first garnered huge attention when a blogger for Gawker posted an in depth piece on the site, even going so far as to describe how you get to it, how to order, and a review after he ordered a small amount of marijuana. The article exploded overnight all over the internet going viral on sites like Reddit. Many users joined and became customers of The Silk Road because of this. This overnight zeitgeist attracted the attention of the DEA, and Sen. Chuck Schumer who vowed to have it shut down in 2011. Sure enough The Silk Road continued on prosperously for a few more years with only minor law enforcement involvement, usually customers were caught but charges couldn’t stick due to the inherent anonymity of the process. That is until old fashioned detective work tracked clues left by human error straight to the creator of The Silk Road, who went by “The Dread Pirate Roberts”.
The Dread Pirate Roberts’ real name is Ross William Ulbricht age 29, a physics major graduate from the University of Texas. He was arrested on Tuesday Oct 1st at 3:15pm in a public library with the site being seized at around the same time. Ulbricht has been charged with one count each of narcotics trafficking conspiracy, computer hacking conspiracy and money laundering conspiracy. In perhaps the most surprising instance in the FBI complaint, the government alleges that DPR even used his site to try to arrange an assassination. Law Enforcement tracked him down due to mistakes Ulbricht made like vaguely bragging about The Silk Road on his linkedin page, and posting snippets of code unique to The Silk Road on sites using his real name. Sounds unbelievable that a man who founded a site based on anonymous transactions would make mistakes in leaving a trail of implicating evidence.
Authorities seized 26,000 bitcoins, thought to be worth $3.6m that were in circulation from users on the site, and are working to seize the 600,000 bitcoins, worth $80m which is over 5% of total bitcoins, owned by Ulbricht himself. Reports are also coming in of users being arrested in other countries as well.
To me, even as an addict myself, it seems like a shame The Silk Road was taken down. Even if I do not use drugs and alcohol myself, I don’t feel the choice should be taken away from someone making an informed decision. An odd opinion perhaps, but I feel as though the war on drugs is a complete failure, a waste of money, and turning low risk offenders into criminals by demonizing drugs. Even as our federal government has shut down because we can’t agree on how to spend money or push us further into debt the American government has found yet another way to waste time and money on the policing of drugs. The Silk Road could have ended up providing a real alternative to the cartels. It could have taken money out of their pockets and put it into the pockets of people whose only crime was to sell drugs; as opposed to people whose many crimes include mass-murder and kidnapping. Silk Road also provided a model for how the legalised selling of drugs might work. Reports suggest that the drugs were less contaminated and that the experience of buying them was less fraught. On the one hand, that just means less awkward sitting around in cars with guys you don’t really want to talk to – on the other hand, it means not being put in physical danger because you’d rather get high than get drunk. The criminalisation of drugs forces people to take risks they wouldn’t normally take and leads to overdoses and the contamination of substances that would not otherwise cause such extreme harm. It creates addicts and it creates dealers. The Silk Road showed us a way, a hugely imperfect way, it should be noted. That these things could be overcome but our lawmakers, with their focus on punishment and their refusal to accept defeat, could not see the benefit in this. Prohibition never works but it’s still the order of the day.
What do you think? Surely The Silk Road sets a precedent, and more sites will likely follow to fill the market. Is it wrong? Is it just criminal behavior and should be punished? What could the backlash and effects on society be if this sandbox exists?
C.S. Bridger is an LA based writer and photographer trying to make sense of recovery