BY WALTER DICK, LAW I
On October 2 of 2013, the DEA took down a billion dollar drug market overnight. There were no guards with AK-47s, no crops in Columbia, no motorcycle gang transporting the merchandise. Just a guy using free wifi in a public library in San Francisco.
William Ulbricht (also known by his internet alias “Dread Pirate Roberts”) founded and operated the online black marketplace Silk Road. Silk Road was a website where users could buy and sell illegal goods anonymously (or so they thought) from all over the world. The site operated much like eBay insofar as the website itself did not provide any goods; it was simply a place where buyers and sellers could negotiate contracts for illegal merchandise, the majority of which was drugs.
Everything was bought and sold in Bitcoins, a digital peer to peer currency with no central issuing authority. By the time the site was taken down, 1.2 billion dollars had changed hands through their 900,000 users with the owner taking in 80 million personally in commission fees.
What does the Silk Road bust mean? Did a billion dollar drug market really just disappear overnight? Sure the website is gone. And sure maybe some of the sellers have been arrested with more arrests to come. But there are a billion dollars worth of consumers that are still sitting at their laptops looking for a new website to buy their drugs. So I wonder, is the market really gone or is it just migrating to a new web address?
In the Internet age where a criminal entrepreneur can open a new website in the blink of an eye, it’s easy to see why cyberspace creates new challenges for the war on drugs. However, the false sense of security given to users by being able to buy their drugs from behind a computer screen may start to wear off as we see law enforcement agencies bust these illegal websites and start collecting data on their customers. So far law enforcement agencies have focused their efforts on pursuing the site operators and higher profile dealers, but who knows what the future holds.
Similar websites that were opened before Silk Road’s demise have since increased in traffic, with one website tripling in product listings within a week of the DEA’s raid. However, while there may be other websites, it might not be long before they too become subject to seizure from law enforcement. Another website similar to Silk Road, The Farmer’s Market, was taken down in April of 2012.
Will law enforcement groups be able to successfully deter new websites by busting enough of them? Or will there always be someone willing to take the risk for a share of this new billion dollar internet drug market? Does Silk Road’s closure signify the beginning of the end of the internet drug war? Or is it merely the end of the beginning?