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By 7 November 2013 | Categories: feature articles

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The internet has undeniably brought massive changes and many benefits, but it also has its sordid and dark side. Just one such example is the recent demise of the Silk Road, which has also brought the Deep Web more into the light.

One of the more significant online crime empires to be brought to its knees was the  largest online and illicit drug website, Silk Road, which was also accompanied by the arrest of its alleged kingpin. Silk Road’s story, and its recent demise, sounds as though it was straight out of a movie script or Tom Clancy novel.

For those unfamiliar with it, the illicit bazaar was host to a range of other black market goods and services, including stolen credit card data, guides to hacking ATMs to commit theft and even more disturbing, a contact list of assassin’s for hire, according to Wired. As is the case with all too many illicit crime networks, Silk Road had a significant clientele – apparently racking up 1.2 million transactions during its lifetime -  and was raking in significant money – in the order of up to $1.3 billion a year.

Like all good crime stories, the Silk Road bust wounded and weaved its way into a tangled web of arrests, undercover activity and culminated in counter-threats by those lamenting the Silk Road’s demise.

Hard drugs and inevitable demise

The site was two and a half years old when the FBI seized the domain and caught the alleged founder, Ross Albricht, also known as Dread Pirate Roberts. Albricht, a 29 year old physics student from Austin, Texas, was arrested in San Francisco and charged with narcotics trafficking, money laundering and being involved in facilitating murder, has protested his innocence, and apparently has a personal fortune locked away of around $80 million (R800 million). 

Indications are that Albricht viewed his role in Silk Road as part of an economic simulation to “give people a first-hand experience of what it would be like to live in a world without the systemic use of force." More particularly, Albricht apparently viewed governments and institutions as the perpetrators of this use of force, and advocated a more anarchist view of how markets should be run. How he got started in the drug trade is still unclear, how he finished though, is much less so.

Albricht’s apprehension (in a library in San Francisco) is a little reminiscent of the arrest of Kim Dot Com, the founder of Megaupload, who was similarly considered a kingpin of an underground online business that traded in copyright materials. However, Silk Road’s bust is considerably bigger and more serious than Megaupload’s shutdown. The reason for this is that in its brief lifetime, Silk Road had become the ‘go-to’ underground (or Deep Web destination) for buying and selling narcotics online, and has been called the Ebay of narcotics. Nor were these only the ‘softer’ prescription drugs, rather, hardcore offerings such as cocaine and heroin were apparently also readily available.  

From there, the story only gets weirder, as Ulbricht came to the attention of the Department of Homeland Security after that agency found a shipment of fake identity documents, all with his photo. Inexplicably enough, he is reported to have drawn attention to Silk Road as being a site where “anyone” could have “theoretically” ordered such documents. Perhaps he believed that authorities would rule him out as having a connection to the site, not to mention being its founder; counting on them reasoning that Ulbricht wouldn’t possibly have the gall to implicate his own crime empire. Clearly, he was mistaken.

Truth and consequences

Albrecht wasn’t the only one gifted with a pair of ‘steel bracelets’ by law enforcement; his arrest was followed by the apprehension of several others with ties to the online drug trade. These arrests though, showed that Silk Road’s reach was global, spanning multiple countries that included the US, UK and Sweden.

What’s more, the bust has also cast a bit of a shadow on the internet’s secure virtual currency, Bitcoin, which was the only accepted means of payment on the Silk Road site. While Bitcoin is perfectly legitimate, an online currency that is traded and used for many legitimate uses, its favouritism amongst drug dealers hardly did its reputation too many favours.

While the Bitcoin currency did briefly plunge in the wake of the Silk Road bust, it subsequently returned to its original value. Nonetheless, at this time of writing, Bitcoin is still largely considered blameless and expected to continue as online currency.    

Another fallout from the Silk Road closure was the backlash against the authorities, with some elements affected apparently trying to ‘name and shame’ particular FBI agents, by finding and leaking their personal details, including their physical address, photos and details of their family, online. These, though, were largely considered  intimidation tactics aimed at trying to instill fear in those charged with upholding the law.

To the point   

One thing that Silk Road’s shutdown does have in common with Megaupload’s fall is that it similarly doesn’t spell the end of illicit activities online, much like piracy and copyright infringement still largely continues. Indeed, no less shady sites are still in existence and likely to take its place, while rumours are circulating that Silk Road 2.0 may already be in the making.

If anything though, Silk Road has only pushed the existence of the Deep Web more fully onto centre stage, showing that even this, supposedly hidden and impenetrable underground of the web may not be quite so impervious to law enforcement as originally presumed.  With the FBI now going after prolific users of Dread Pirate Roberts’ empire to traffic narcotics, one thing is certain: for them, it may very be the end of the road in more ways than one.

Illegal online

The Silk Road shutdown is not the only vast and illicit section of the web that has been closed off and seen its illegal activities stymied.

This one really is for the children

No less notable for its impact was the recent arrest of the founder of Freedom Hosting, Eric Eoin Marques. Billed by the FBI as being the “largest facilitator of child porn on the planet,” the shutting down of Freedom Hosting is being considered a major coup for those fighting against child pornography, with this Deep Web host’s closure apparently also resulting in a significant decrease in child pornography online.

Looking for money in all the wrong places

Yet another example of how the internet can go very wrong is the use of Craigslist for prostitution. While the popular classified site can be used to sell a variety of things, from furniture to cars, sex for money is not meant to be among them. This, two women from Salem recently found out the hard way (no pun intended), after a detective answered their ad offering sex for $100, and instead of ‘a good time’, showed them a cold jail cell on charges of prostitution.

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