Did Shutting Down Silk Road Make the World a More Dangerous Place?

So long as narcotics are illegal, they will be sold on the black market. Better that it happens on the Web than on the street.

The Silk Road, a Web based black market for illegal narcotics, fake documents, hackers-for-hire and other illicit goods, has been shut down by the FBI, and its alleged mastermind, Ross William Ulbricht, has been arrested in San Francisco, CA. The 39-page criminal complaint filed against him makes for a fascinating read. In less than 3 years, the Silk Road is said to have become “the most sophisticated and extensive criminal marketplace on the Internet today,” facilitating roughly $1.2 billion in sales* among many thousands of anonymous users. Hundreds of kilograms of illegal drugs are thought to have been sold through the site. People would log on using the Internet anonymity tool Tor, browse listings not unlike those at Amazon.com, read reviews left by other customers, place orders, and get ecstasy or LSD or cocaine or meth sent by mail.

The Department of Justice’s version of events should never be assumed correct.  But if their claims are true, authorities had no choice but to shut down the enterprise: among other transgressions, Ulbricht is accused of paying $150,000 to bring about the murder of a hacker who threatened to compromise the anonymity of Silk Road users unless he was paid a substantial sum in blackmail money (the complaint gives us good reason to doubt that a murder in fact happened). Extra-legal violence is often a part of black markets. Ulbricht is said to have created The Silk Road because he wanted to design an economic simulation that would “give people a first hand experience of what it would be like to live in a world without the systemic use of force” by “institutions and governments.” Doing so all but guaranteed that individuals would themselves initiate force.  

But for all of the DOJ details that, if accurate, make The Silk Road an indefensible enterprise, I can’t help but conclude, after reading the complaint, that the world is actually going to be a more dangerous place in the absence of the online marketplace. If its facts are correct, the FBI wasn’t wrong to shut down the site, where people were allegedly hired to make hits and break into the computers of innocents**. Good riddance to that. For the vast majority of sellers and purchasers, however, The Silk Road was a marketplace for illegal narcotics, and a strong case can be made that it facilitated a significantly less damaging drug trade than what existed before it. If that's so, the implication isn’t that The Silk Road should be restarted, but that we'd be better off with a sanctioned online narcotics trade. 

At its most basic level, The Silk Road served as a middleman that earned a reputation for trust among buyers and sellers. I never accessed the site when it was online. But my conversations with journalists and programmers who explored its listings square with the basic explanation in the FBI's criminal complaint: buyers had to fund their Silk Road accounts with Bitcoins, an anonymous digital currency; upon making a purchase, the necessary funds would be held in escrow by The Silk Road; once the transaction was complete, funds were transferred; and various measures were taken to protect the anonymity of all parties involved. Buyers could also review the products offered by sellers. 

It's easy to see why computer-savvy buyers preferred getting their drug of choice on The Silk Road. The purchase could be made without ever identifying oneself to a drug dealer (or undercover cop), going to see him in some potentially dangerous location, or inviting him over. User reviews meant the product was a known quantity. And apparently the drugs were high quality — the FBI said it made numerous purchases on The Silk Road, and that “samples of these purchases have been laboratory tested and have typically shown high purity levels.”

Elsewhere, the FBI states that:

  • “Silk Road has been used by several thousand drug dealers and other unlawful vendors to distribute hundreds of kilograms of illegal drugs...”
  • “Based on the postal markings on the packages in which the drugs arrived, these purchases appear to have been filled by vendors located in over ten different countries...”
  • “The narcotics sold on the site tend to be sold in individual-use quantities...”

Think of what that means.

Presented by

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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