On the Silk Road website, every drug you can think of — and a dizzying number of others, too — have been on open sale for years, from crack, heroin, and LSD, to a new generation of “research chemicals” that exist just outside the reach of the law.
Activists, dealers and users have effectively used the site to declare an independent state online where all commerce, within certain boundaries, is permitted, and all under the auspices of the site’s owner, who was — until this week — known as The Dread Pirate Roberts. The FBI allege that his true identity is that of Ross Ulbricht, the 29-year-old who was arrested in a raid on a public library in San Francisco on October 2.
Until it was shut down by law enforcement, Silk Road had everything: Norwegians selling Cambodian mushrooms, Canadians selling Afghan heroin, and Brits selling concentrated cannabis tinctures from ancient Nepalese cannabis landraces. Most of the products there were illegal, but whether you wanted a quarter gram of heroin or a gram of glittering Peruvian escama de pescado cocaine, you were in the right place. Buying was as simple as Amazon or eBay: a simple matter of adding the goods to your shopping cart, and paying for them. The money was held in an escrow account hosted at the site, and although you had to supply a delivery address, this could be encrypted, and then deleted as soon as the goods turned up.
Silk Road’s turnover reached $22 million a year within its first year of operation, according to security researcher Nicolas Christin, and the site’s owners took a commission on each sale of around six per cent — or $143,000 per month. In its indictment, the FBI says that Ulbricht pulled in $80 million during his time at the helm.
The site was not just popular for buying and selling, either. Its forum was busy too, with over 100,000 posts, 9,000 topics, and 11,000 users in the bustling community pages. The conversations there would weave around the site’s holy trinity: drugs, smuggling and cryptography. All this had made it the most popular among a growing, hidden network of drug dealers whose activities were hosted online. So how come these services continued to exist, even though they are breaking the law in such a flagrant manner?
Life on the Dark Web
In order for its customers to be completely untraceable, and therefore invulnerable to legal prosecution, the Silk Road was hosted on a hidden service, buried away on the Dark Web, far from the reach of Google. Their home is Tor, an alternative web-like space that swarms with users who travel through virtual tunnels that exist beneath the everyday web. Users — both dealers and their customers — have complete anonymity, and until it was revealed that he had made a series of calamitous errors, so did its owner.
Tor was created in 2001 by two computer science graduates at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They took a piece of undeployed software that had been written by the American Navy in 1995 to enable simple, anonymous internet use, and released their own version of it online, with the Navy’s permission.
“The navy had this project called Onion Routing, and it’s still going today,” explains information activist Andrew Lewman, who is the mouthpiece of the Tor organization.
“Its goal is to defeat network traffic analysis, which is the ability to know who you are, who you’re talking to, and how much data you send and receive. If you think of envelope data from your postal system, that’s the basis of intelligence gathering: For whatever reason, the Navy wanted this technology — they started the project but they didn’t have any intention of releasing it publicly. So Paul Syverson, a mathematician who’s still the core researcher for onion routing for the Navy, met grad student Roger Dingledine at a conference.”
“Roger said, ‘Have you ever thought of putting this on the internet?’ At the time the Navy had no plans for deployment. But Paul said sure.”
The original aim of the MIT grad students, Roger Dingledine and Nick Mathewson, was to give users control over their data when they went online. This was during the first dotcom boom, and many companies were giving away services for free — or rather, in exchange for your data and your browsing habits, which they would then sell on to third parties. Information activists rejected that business model and wanted to offer an alternative: so Dingeldine and Mathewson created Tor.
The vast majority of Tor users are simply people who want privacy when they go online, as the information gathered on us by search engines and social media grows daily. When researching sensitive or medical matters, some users don’t want Facebook or Google searches sending unsettlingly accurate adverts back at them. There were 36 million downloads of the software last year, and around one million daily users. In repressive regimes such as Iran, Tor users can access sites that are blocked by the government. But others, as The Dread Pirate Roberts knew, would use it to flout the law.
Inside the system
Like any other successful online retailer, Silk Road had its own reputation system. The forums at the site offered crowdsourced proof of the site’s best vendors and its worst scammers. In June 2012, when I was researching my book Drugs 2.0, reviews for the best LSD vendor ran to 81 pages, and had racked up 50,000 views; reviews of heroin dealers, meanwhile, ran to 22 pages with 8,000 views. Cocaine vendors were highly scrutinized — reviewed in a 292-page behemoth of a thread with over 90,000 views — while MDMA ran in at 129 pages with over 60,000 views.
The vendors themselves were often involved, and some have been happy to talk to me about their involvement with the site. One told me, for example, how dealing drugs on the site came with its own set of moral problems.
“The prospect of a twelve-year-old loaded to the gills on my MDMA is not a pleasant one,” he explained. “Enabling self-destructive/addictive behaviour is also upsetting to me. Dealing IRL, you can recognize abuse and let customers know you’re concerned, but online, there’s no way to tell.”
He admitted, though, that vending on the site was financially much more lucrative than selling in real life.
“IRL, you’re limited by your social circles, but here it’s only a question of supply, capital and hours in the day.”
“Packaging straight-up sucks to do,” he continued. “It’s extremely monotonous and requires a good degree of concentration to avoid making any mistakes that might endanger the customer receiving. Sometimes during especially busy periods, I spend 70, 80, 90 hours a week packaging, all of it extremely dull. Apart from the risk of being locked up for the next decade, it’s definitely the worst part. Dealing in real life is much more pleasant.”
Greater paranoia about the authorities is another downside: “Public drug markets are a giant middle finger to many powerful interests and so the political motivation to shut them down and lock up the people participating is out of proportion to the actual volume of illicit trade taking place. Last summer I was the ‘number one’ (basically highest-volume) vendor on the site for a while, and the fear really crept up on me. I’d lie awake at night thinking about it, worrying I was going to have my door kicked down and be dragged away at any moment. I’m much more comfortable with it now, but if I had known from the start how much mental torment and stress were involved with vending, I probably wouldn’t have started.”
However, there are upsides, he says: “I find the day-to-day grind of vending online worse than dealing IRL, but the human interaction online is often a lot more uplifting in some ways. Most people I sell to IRL are club kids/raver types so they’re more predisposed towards hedonism (which I of course have nothing against!) than using for more spiritual/emotional reasons so the feedback is less touching, which is a definite negative for me. I get emails from Silk Road customers telling me how the drugs I sell have helped them with emotional or spiritual or sexual problems, people mending broken relationships, rekindling intimacy.”
The motivation for people to use the Silk Road was high, given the prevailing legal climate. Mail is a vast trade, and small envelopes and packages are seldom opened, much less X-rayed or sniffed by dogs. That means capture, prosecution, and imprisonment look unlikely.
But if you were worried, one vendor on the site even offered a fake package service for the super-cautious: he’d deliver you an empty box or envelope for a small charge, just to get the mailman used to delivering packages from overseas.
Packaging by many vendors on the site was said to be exceptionally ingenious, and the protocol on the forums and in feedback forms below purchases was that these should never be discussed publicly, even on the Dark Web. What’s more, there are vendors in many countries so there’s no need to worry about international postal or customs issues: users in the US or UK or the Netherlands — or indeed, in dozens of countries worldwide — can buy drugs from dealers in their own countries, removing the danger of border staff targeting your package.
In just under two years, the Silk Road administrators used technology and ingenuity, along with innovative crowdsourcing solutions to internal and external threats, to achieve what thousands of campaigners had toiled since the 1960s to achieve: the right for people to buy and sell natural and artificial chemicals that affect their consciousness in ways they choose without interference from the state. It is a paradigm shift that cannot easily be reversed.
And even though the FBI believes it has arrested the site’s owner, the Silk Road’s payment and communication systems remain essentially impenetrable. It’s here that the early net evangelists’ vision of a world where information flows freely, where no central hierarchy rules, and where the network takes precedence over the individual has finally been realized. Whether you celebrate or lament the fact that drugs such as cocaine, heroin, LSD are now available online with just a little effort and very little likelihood of legal consequences, it is undeniable that we are at a turning point in legal history.
Through a decades-long process of chemical and technical innovation, human ingenuity has beaten the laws made by a political system that has responded to increased drug use by insisting on a harmful, expensive and counterproductive and ultimately failed strategy of criminalization.
Over the course of the century or so that drug laws have existed in any meaningful form, a clear pattern has emerged. As each law to prevent drug consumption is made, a means to circumvent it is sought, and found. Those means can be chemical, legal, social or technological. We stand today at a crossroads formed by those four elements, with the web making possible communication between distant strangers, facilitating the sharing of limitless quantities of information, and enabling the distribution of drugs anywhere in the world. Where do we go next?
This piece is extracted from Drugs 2.0: The Web Revolution That’s Changing How the World Gets High by Mike Power, published in the UK by Portobello. Buy it now on Amazon UK.