For better or for worse, Silk Road has been a fixture in the Bitcoin economy ever since the currency first caught the attention of the mainstream media in early 2011. The service is an online black marketplace for goods such as drugs, pirated digital goods, books on topics such as computer hacking and drug manufacture, counterfeits and forgeries, complete with an Ebay (or Bitmit)-style user interface, an escrow system and a Bitcoin wallet that mixes all incoming and outgoing coins so as to obscure their origin. It operates completely anonymously, existing to the outside world only as a so-called “hidden service” on the Tor network, run by a user who is known to others only as “Dread Pirate Roberts”. It maintains the secrecy of its operators and location by combining two technologies: Tor, the largely US military-funded internet anonymizing service intended to help dissidents in authoritarian regimes evade the prying eyes of their governments, and Bitcoin. The former makes it extremely difficult to trace buyers and sellers’ communications, and the latter, combined with Silk Road’s proprietary mixing system, their financial trail.
Silk Road attracts people for many reasons. Some are simply interested in having a safe and easy place to buy and sell illegal items, of which drugs are by far the largest category. Others cite costs as a factor. One writer, Gwern, claimed in his review of Silk Road that he was able to find Adderall on sale for a “price per pill far superior to that I was quoted by one of my college-age friends (less than 1/3 the price) and also better than the Adderall price quote in the New Yorker, $15 for 20mg”. For others, Silk Road is an ideological mission far more than it is about the goods. Dread Pirate Roberts frequently promotes libertarian political principles on his own forum, and there is a common consensus that fining and imprisoning people for putting substances into their own bodies is morally wrong. The crypto-anarchist movement, which seeks to remove the potential for individuals and institutions to exert power over others by moving key social institutions onto mathematically secured, and often anonymous, internet-based protocols, also finds the service attractive. As governments continue attempting to push restrictive internet legislation such as SOPA and ACTA into law, the allure of using Tor to make such government machinations simply irrelevant will only continue to increase. Finally, there are some legal products available for sale on Silk Road, and even for those who are not interested in using Silk Road to circumvent the law the service provides an active community in which entrepreneurs can nurture their online business and potentially develop a second income from the comfort of their own homes.
Silk Road first truly broke into the public view on June 1, 2011, when an article on gawker.com made a detailed review of the service, and membership quickly jumped by an order of magnitude to over ten thousand. A few days later, the US government caught on, and senators Charles Schumer and Joe Manchin called for the website to be shut down immediately, proclaiming that “Never before has a website so brazenly peddled illegal drugs online” and “by cracking down on the website immediately, we can help stop these drugs from flooding our streets.” Since this brief spark, however, Silk Road has faded somewhat into the background. On June 9, the Bitcoin price bubble finally popped, and attention quickly turned to first this, then to further negative attention on Bitcoin’s economic properties, and finally a security crisis involving a series of unrelated events in late June, continuing in August as bitomat.pl was hacked and the first online Bitcoin wallet, MyBitcoin, disappeared with 51% of its users’ deposits.
Silk Road suffered as the price fell from $31 to $2 between June and November, making it difficult for sellers to make money, but the service retained a loyal following and its users were eventually rewarded with the price rebounding and stabilizing in early 2012. The number of accounts is currently at about 22000, and the largest number of people online at any given time is 126 – a stable community, but much smaller than those who see Silk Road as being the single shadowy force keeping up the Bitcoin economy behind the scenes imagine. About three quarters of its users are from the United States, although British and European users are a sizeable minority. One reason for this is the relative ease of buying bitcoins in the US, as well as the higher interest in drugs there, but the divide is also because Silk Road does little to cater to its non-US customers. For example, Silk Road users have the option of seeing prices in BTC or USD, but not any other currency. This is particularly of concern for non-US sellers, because they, unlike sellers who are based in the US, do not have the choice of setting a price for their goods that is fixed in their local currency. Language is another concern; foreign language support is nonexistent, and even dedicated subforums for second-tier languages are lacking.
So far, there have been no reports of anyone being arrested as a result of Silk Road activity, and there are good reasons to believe that while the DEA may find Silk Road worth keeping an eye on, they are not actively attempting to identify buyers or sellers. As one Silk Road user, vlad1m1r, who confines himself to the strictly legal activity of selling bitcoins in exchange for cash in the mail in the UK, writes, “I find it implausible that they are monitoring it on a daily basis as it’s simply not an effective use of resources due to the anonymous nature of the Tor network and the use of GPG encrypted messages to exchange personal information. Users occasionally speculate that this vendor or that may be LE (Law Enforcement) but I doubt very much that a Police officer would sell drugs in order to make arrests as this would be textbook entrapment.” The last claim, that a police officer selling drugs constitutes entrapment, is a legally complicated one; USLegal defines entrapment as being “when [a person] is induced or persuaded by law enforcement officers or their agents to commit a crime that he had no previous intent to commit”; someone actively searching drug listings on Silk Road would likely not fall under the definition. Nevertheless, the argument that it’s not worth it to spend the resources going after Silk Road is a valid one, and law enforcement officials who are more interested in mitigating the social consequences of drug sellers and gangs on the streets than in pursuing a prohibitionist agenda as an end in itself may well decide to leave Silk Road alone simply because buying drugs on the internet is much safer than the alternative.
The relationship between Silk Road’s users and its management tends to be a positive one. As vlad1m1r describes it, “we do get the occasional malcontent who complains that their thread was arbitrarily deleted or that the creator of Silk Road himself DPR hasn’t deigned to address their particular concern, but people are generally polite when asking for new products or help with using the site, and the admins largely reciprocate.” One of the factors contributing to Silk Road’s cohesive community is the high level of trust. Scams are a serious problem on the darknets because of the anonymity of the participants and the fact that going to the police for help necessarily implies confessing to a crime, and Silk Road is one of the few places that attempts to counteract this with a reputation system and a built-in escrow service.
However, there are problems. One major controversy among the service’s users is that of morality. There have been instances of people putting up images which constitute child pornography in some jurisdictions but are acceptable in others, and the Silk Road administration tends to stick to its own moral philosophy in such cases, not taking down consensual images which are slightly underage but strictly prohibiting products of genuine abuse. There have also been requests for credit card skimming devices, which are not allowed under Silk Road law, but which some people believe are no more immoral than counterfeits and drugs. Weapons were another concern, and Dread Pirate Roberts eventually resolved that particular concern with the middle-of-the-road option of banning them from Silk Road itself but allowing them on a specifically designed sister site called The Armory. Services such as theft and contract killing are banned from Silk Road and The Armory entirely, although some Silk Road users point buyers interested in such goods to a competing site with no moral restrictions at all, Black Market Reloaded.
The other issue, although not a controversy, revolves around the escrow system. The default way of making transactions in Silk Road is for the buyer to send his funds not to the seller directly, but to the escrow system, which notifies the seller that it received and is holding the funds. When the buyer receives his product, he notifies the escrow system that the transaction was successful, and the seller gets his money. Some sellers, however, ask their buyers to bypass this mechanism and send directly to them for convenience, a practice which is heavily frowned upon by the Silk Road administration and community, but is nevertheless sometimes done. On April 20, many sellers on Silk Road celebrated the service’s first birthday by hosting special sales of their products at reduced prices, and one established vendor, Tony76, used the opportunity to sell a large number of orders and ran off with the money. There is some speculation as to just how much Tony76 was able to steal, but it is known that he transferred at least $30,000 worth of bitcoins off the site. Since then, the use of escrow has gained in popularity once again, and the possibility of making escrow mandatory, while not currently implemented, is always under discussion.
Outside opinion on Silk Road is split. Some believe that the Bitcoin economy would be better off without such services tarnishing its reputation, as it would be better able to market itself as a currency with legitimate uses, while others openly embrace the underground economy either seeing its liberation as an end in itself or respecting its potential to act as a bootstrapping mechanism for Bitcoin. In terms of its size, Silk Road is currently Bitcoin’s largest e-commerce platform, having about twice as many products as its largest legal competitor, bitmit.net, but it is far from being Bitcoin’s economic powerhouse, a title to which businesses like Butterfly Labs and BitInstant hold a much greater claim. Both supporters of Silk Road’s particular brand of crypto-anarchic freedom and people concerned with Bitcoin’s public image can rest assured that Silk Road is nowhere near taking over the Bitcoin economy, but neither is it going away.
Vitalik Buterin is a co-founder of Bitcoin Magazine who has been involved in the Bitcoin community since 2011, and has contributed to Bitcoin both as a writer and the developer of a fork of bitcoinjs-lib, pybitcointools and multisig.info, as well as one of the developers behind Egora. Now, Vitalik's primary job is as the main developer of Ethereum, a project which intends to create a next-generation smart contract and decentralized application platform that allows people to create any kind of decentralized application on top of a blockchain that can be imagined.