After a startling revelation on the first day, the trial of Ross Ulbricht, the alleged Dread Pirate Roberts continues this week. On day one of the trial, Ulbricht’s defense attorney conceded that yes, Ross Ulbricht did indeed start the notorious Silk Road market.

Silk Road was intended to be, as portrayed by Ulbricht’s defense counsel, a decentralized marketplace free from government regulation. More experiment than illegal endeavor, defense attorneys have sought to paint Ulbricht in a similar light to other pioneers of internet distribution methods. Journals seized as part of evidence seem to support this attempt to paint Ulbricht as a pioneer; the journals indicate that Ulbricht intended Silk Road to be more brand than market, with offshoots including “Silk Road Chat, Silk Road Bank, Silk Road credit union, Silk Road market, Silk Road everything.”

However, despite these apparently lofty goals for Silk Road, the reality of the market was far less grand and far more frightening. Using the privacy protections offered by the Tor network, Silk Road operated primarily as an online narcotics emporium. Even deeper, there is evidence to indicate that illegal services such as human trafficking, assassinations, firearms, and organ trafficking were all either available in, or were considered as potential future additions to, the Silk Road marketplace. As a self-identified marketplace “free from government regulation,” Silk Road attracted suppliers and consumers who could not function in marketplaces where such regulation existed.

Ulbricht’s defense suggests that, while Ulbricht did indeed create Silk Road, he proceeded to sell it and much of its evolution into a criminal emporium was at the hands of a different administrator who would later become Dread Pirate Roberts. They also suggest that, much like other internet organizations including the infamous Anonymous, there are—and were—many Dread Pirate Roberts; Ulbricht, while involved in the creation and administrations of Silk Road should not, therefore, be held accountable for the various charges currently facing him.

This, and other ongoing cases like the Pirate Bay trial, present a difficult roadblock to attempts to regulate internet marketplaces/communities. Though Sunde and many other founders of the Pirate Bay were successfully convicted, the website itself, after substantial downtime, has reemerged, though it currently lacks the massive library of pirated files that it has had in the past. The Pirate Bay is notoriously resilient to shutdown, and despite the seizure of much of its supporting equipment, including servers and other data storage, it appears to be set for re-launch on the first of February. Silk Road represents another example of the increasing difficulty for regulators to control these internet locations; it was only through a security slip up on the part of the administrators of Silk Road that authorities were able to locate the servers and shut them down.

Equally problematic is the growing positive public opinion surrounding these individuals. Many groups have come forward requesting the release of Sunde and the Pirate Bay founders, and, while Ulbricht is not as popular due to his alleged direct involvement in narcotics, assassinations, and his characterization as a drug lord, Dread Pirate Roberts would routinely post on the Silk Road forums about the libertarian nature of Silk Road, and the increasing need for Tor and other encryption algorithms to protect individuals from privacy violations by the US government.

“If it wasn’t clear before that the state is your enemy, it should be now that the biggest covert intelligence agency in the biggest government on the planet has been stealing nearly everyone’s private communications. We have the technology right now to make this impossible for them. … Again, if Silk Road can play a role in this transition, I’m more than happy to provide.” This rhetoric, originally posted in response to the Snowden leaks, is characteristic of the growing libertarian rhetoric used by administrators of sites offering illegal services. And this rhetoric is one that must be addressed by regulators going forward. Because for every Silk Road that is shut down, there is the groundwork, both culturally and in the code, for many more to arise. We have seen this phenomenon with the Pirate Bay, and it is not clear whether we can afford to observe this phenomenon with Silk Road.

Wayman Stodart

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