On October 2, 2013, social media and dark net blogs exploded overnight as the mastermind behind the world’s largest dark net site for drugs and everything illegal, Silk Road, was tracked down by the FBI and arrested in a San Fransisco public library.
29 year old Ross Ulbricht, also known by his cryptic name, ‘Dread Pirate Roberts’ (DPR) is, according to the FBI, the owner and manager of Silk Road. The anonymous narcotics marketplace had reportedly generated about $1.2 billion (£760m) in revenue since its creation in early 2011.
For many, Silk Road was the eBay of illegal goods, where hundreds of thousands of customers and vendors came together to purchase and sell anything from marijuana to hit men services, heroin and AK-47s.
Before the site was shut down, sales revenues were over 9.5 million Bitcoins, the digital cryptocurrency used by the site (£2.25 billion) and as of July 23, 2013 there were approximately 957,079 registered user accounts.
It’d become the most sophisticated and extensive criminal marketplace on the internet. After DPR’s arrest and the site’s closure, things began to change within the dark net and panic ensued as Bitcoins started to disappear and distributors were taken down with the site’s founder.
The site was closed down overnight. Many believed this marked the end of the anonymous dark net market era, but instead it resulted in the complete opposite effect – similar sites began to spring up everywhere.
A year on from the closure of the original site, I wanted to know how the dark net has changed. I spoke to Jamie Barlett, director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media, journalist for the Telegraph and author of The Dark Net to understand what has changed.
“The dark net market has changed, firstly it’s got bigger – they’ve made more of them, there are now 35 functioning markets. They sell a variety of products and basically they’ve got smarter.”
Jamie Barlett isn’t the only person to have noticed the changes in the last 12 months. I got in contact with an original Silk Road user who’s now using Silk Road 2.0 after the original site was shut down. He only wanted to be known as Corporate Buggout (his Silk Road login name).
“It’s become a beast and it’s become harder to contain. The sheer range of stuff that you can buy on the dark net now is just disgusting. The vendors that I’ve used or come across before have been very clever with packaging stuff. They call it stealth; it’s all referred to as stealth. On Silk Road there’s the golden rule, which says don’t mention anything that can put you on hard evidence, never mention any location without encrypting it or anything about exactly what your order is. Users have got a streetwise attitude but it’s as far away from the streets as you can possibly imagine.” said Buggout.
After the arrest of DPR last year, plus the vast media coverage Silk Road and the dark net has received it seemed inevitable that awareness for these markets would rise. Some predicted that it was only the beginning; that a whole new gateway had been opened after the closure of Silk Road 1.0.
I got in contact with a dark net user who predicted the rise of further sites. He only wanted to be referred to by his Silk Road 2.0 name, 6hdp, and said: “It’s definitely grown, more and more people know about it, active users have changed the world at least a little bit. They spread better drugs and are probably reducing the harm to some people, I think. It’s just a completely different culture to what you see on the street and dealers where everything feels dodgy and some people seem malicious. It seems that people care about you and you can go and ask people questions about drugs in general and staying safe.”
The sites also seem to be changing the lives of people involved in them too. I asked 6hdp if Silk Road and the dark market have changed his world in any way:
“It has changed my world. I ask myself the same question sometimes. I’m hoping that from Silk Road 2.0 and other [dark net] websites changing my world, that I can change the rest of the world. I keep trying to educate people about drugs and Silk Road. I remember the first time that I logged in the sense of freedom was exhilarating. It was a high, it was a very weird experience and it made me realise that freedom is limited nowadays.”
So it’s only changed your world for the better, or the worse also?
“It’s changed my world for the worse though lately as I’ve become very paranoid. Officially I’m a dealer now… it takes a while for you to realise what this means – my friend getting arrested a couple weeks ago was that [wake up] moment for me. He was a Silk Road user and the whole thing with the law really shook me up.”
The development of the dark net has also created a community within its buyers and vendors. On some of the blogs created for the community many believe the dark net has created a lax attitude towards drugs. Some believe these sites will ultimately lead to the decriminalization of softer drugs globally. I asked Jamie for his thoughts on this:
“Potentially younger people coming onto that market (Silk Road 2.0) may see how easy it is, it may lower the value as they no longer see the need to hang around on the street corner… I’m not sure in a change being in mood yet apart from those that in this little community, because it is a community.”
I also asked Jake Hanrahan, a Vice journalist who met Ace (a Silk Road drug boss) the same question:
“I think Silk Road has definitely changed the way we look at drugs. I don’t think it’s changed it as much as the most pro-Silk Road people believe it has, but I believe it’s opened up a lot of options – people realised that it really does work. I remember reading that the DPR network was bigger than [Columbian drug lord] Pablo Escobar’s. It’s just crazy – purely in the sheer size of it. There’s no way you can deny in some way that it has changed things. It’s more of a fringe market; it’s not as mainstream as people who use it think it is.”
“It’s more of a fringe market; it’s not as mainstream as people who use it think it is.”
The journalistic perspective can sometimes be biased in these situations, so I asked Corporate Buggout if Silk Road has changed any stances on drugs:
“Silk Road has had a part to play in changing the world’s stance on drugs. The sheer volume that goes down makes you a little more cavalier when you don’t have to get in contact with anyone. The next day or the next week, all you have to do is go down to your post box and you have your cocktail of drugs there waiting for you. It eliminates the idea of it being a sort of risky or dangerous business, so people begin to think, ‘so why is it like this? Why do they [the government] spend all this money and time trying to keep it away from us and making it prohibited?’”
There’s no denying that within the dark net community and amongst people aged 18-35 years old, where drugs are more socially acceptable, there’s a belief that these sites are changing the global perspective on drugs.
But the growth of these sites has made an already sketchy scene all the shadier after the closure of the original Silk Road. Sheep Marketplace began operating in March 2013, nearly six months after DPR was arrested.
At first people flocked to the site, but soon after, a vendor allegedly exploited a vulnerability and made off with $6 million (£3.8m) in Bitcoins. According to blogs, many believe the site’s operators were actually behind the theft.
Silk Road 2.0 showed its users that it to is not invincible after it was hacked in February 2014; another vendor was suspected to be behind the hacking and made off with $2.7 million (£1.7bn) in users’ Bitcoins.
Despite the scams and thefts, those inside the community seem to believe things will change globally. As well as this, 6hdp believes these sites can expose users to world they might not have engaged in without the apparent safety the computer screen provides.
“I wasn’t so really into drugs until I started ordering stuff online. I was smoking weed and maybe tried a line of cocaine, maybe tried MDMA two or three years ago then soon after, I started ordering drugs online, which really broadened my drug experiences.”
Broadening your drug experiences, according to Katie Silver, an American journalist can be very problematic. She told me:
“One potential problem I see is people using the market to expose themselves to new drugs they wouldn’t have used or known much about before. It’s almost like a shopping center – and that’s the scary thing. People go in for one thing, have a browse, and walk out (or check out rather) with purchases they never intended.”
However, she doubts the dark net will lead to a more liberal societal attitude towards drugs.
“I don’t think the presence of these sites will result in a more relaxed attitude. It makes them more accessible and easily traded, but the vast majority of the population still wouldn’t be aware of how to navigate the dark web – myself included! Also, it’s still a relatively sinister enterprise so I don’t see that translating into a lax sentiment amongst people in the mainstream.”
When Ross Ulbricht originally created Silk Road, one of the goals of the site was to create an online criminal marketplace outside the reach of law enforcement and government regulation.
Jake Hanrahan described this to me as a two-finger salute to the government – the site ran as a rebellion to laws and enforcement agencies.
I guess Ross and Silk Road achieved the goal it was created for, but with him behind bars and the original site shut down it’s hard to see what the next 12 months hold in store for the dark net markets. I asked Jack what he thinks the future has in store for Silk Road and similar sites:
“I don’t know what the future holds for dark net markets. I think the government should change laws, they need to get with the times. It’s just like Jesus – there are a million other worse things going on in the world. Taking drugs is often positive in my opinion, even with what people consider harder drugs. I don’t agree with the government that they can come in and tell you what you can and can’t put in your body.”
Personally I think it would be great if the government took a more relaxed stance on these websites and drugs and maybe regulated the market, but things aren’t ever that easy.
Jamie Barlett told me that “these are anonymous market places – they’re not just drug market places, some of these are selling guns, child pornography, fake documents and IDs, so whatever you think about drugs and the war on drugs it’s more than just that. There are certain things like arms and fake IDs that people should not be able to get, and the government has a duty to try to do something about that. But the reality is the government has no option but to try and destruct these markets. If we legalise drugs, that’s a different matter as we would have to have a regulated market, not a free market.”
But at the moment this is all very hypothetical. The chances of someone walking up to a counter at a supermarket and asking for ‘a gram of fair-trade of cocaine’ any time soon as still very unrealistic.
What is for sure, according to Katie Silver, is that “Silk Road, and the other websites like it, have made drug selling a legitimate business, with traders accepting payment via digital currencies like Bitcoin and then using postal services to deliver the drugs. And if current growth rates are anything to go by – they’re here to stay.”
One year on from Ross Ulbricht’s arrest, his lawyers have spent the last two months shifting the focus away from their client, whose trial is scheduled to begin in January.
Ulbricht is likely to be sentenced to prison, but even if he leaves his legacy behind for time behind bars, the drug bazaar he created along with the others that have sprung up since seem certain to stay.
Sourced screenshots from TOR Browser, url: http://silkroad6ownowfk.onion
Featured photo by Tom Tapolczay
Syringe photo by Patrick Walker via Flickr