Silk Road was the first modern darknet marketplace. Likewise, the site was the first to bring together the elements of Bitcoin, Tor, escrow payments, and a reputation system. In this sense, the Silk Road’s general structure has been copied by the vast majority of DNMs that have followed in its wake. Due to its rapid rise as an unprecedented platform for global drug commerce, the Silk Road quickly garnered mainstream attention, including from law enforcement authorities. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) shuttered the site in October 2013, at which point the agency arrested Ross Ulbricht, a young libertarian American that investigators alleged to be the Silk Road’s operator, “Dread Pirate Roberts.”
How it started
Development on the Silk Road began in the second half of 2010 ahead of the marketplace’s February 2011 launch. The site immediately gained traction with darknet users for providing a reliable way to discreetly view and purchase drug products. While only a few vendors were allowed on the platform in its early days, Dread Pirate Roberts eventually moved to charging a fixed-fee for onboarding new sellers.
Silk Road by the numbers
While it was online, the Silk Road reportedly facilitated more than 1.2 million unique transactions, with total associated revenue from that commerce being 9.5 million Bitcoin. Of that sum, the site’s admins are said to have earned over 600,000 Bitcoin in commission fees. Nearly 4,000 vendors and 150,000 buyers appear to have used the inaugural darknet marketplace during its lifetime.
The fall of Silk Road
FBI agents arrested Ross Ulbricht in San Francisco in October 2013 in alleging he was responsible for the Dread Pirate Roberts account. Investigators had suspected Ulbricht’s involvement after coming across old forum posts that appeared to link him to the Silk Road’s creation. In court, Ulbricht argued he had created the site but later passed off control of it to others, though to no avail. He was sentenced to two counts of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole in May 2015.
The Silk Road is the earliest cautionary tale from the contemporary darknet marketplace arena. In other words, build a DNM and the authorities will come, which is a dynamic the space has seen time and time again since the Silk Road’s fall. Any DNM is only as secure as its weakest link, and in the case of the Silk Road, that weakest link appears to have been loose lips.