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.