Dark Web Drug Sales Rose After Silk Road Founder's High-Profile Life Sentence

By Victoria Kim 05/25/17

According to a new study, US dark web sales doubled in the days following Ross Ulbricht’s sentencing. 

Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht
Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht Photo via YouTube

We’re coming up on two years since Ross Ulbricht—the founder of the dark web marketplace where people could buy and sell illegal goods and services anonymously—was sentenced to life without parole: May 29, 2015.

Judge Katherine Forrest sought to make an example out of Ulbricht, saying during the time of his sentencing, “For those considering stepping into your shoes…they need to understand very clearly and without equivocation that if you break the law this way there will be very, very severe consequences.” 

But the results of a new study suggest that the harsh sentence didn’t result in losses on other dark web marketplaces—instead, sales increased.

“The Silk Road’s founder may languish in a New York prison, but his business model continues to thrive,” wrote Andy Greenberg for Wired.com. Greenberg breaks down the research by sociologist Isak Ladegaard of Boston College, published in the British Journal of Criminology.

An analysis of sales data from Agora, another large dark web market similar to the Silk Road, during a 10-month period showed that U.S. sales doubled in the days following Ulbricht’s sentencing.

Over a period of two weeks, sales of U.S.-based sellers rose from less than $40,000 per day to over $100,000 per day. Internationally, daily sales rose from $100,000 to $250,000.

Instead of deterring people from patronizing dark web sellers, Silk Road’s example appeared to have had the opposite effect.

Ladegaard says the media coverage surrounding Ulbricht’s case likely made more people aware of the existence of dark web markets, and were more curious than discouraged.

“The timing suggests that people weren’t discouraged from buying and selling drugs,” said Ladegaard. “The data suggests that trade increased. And one likely explanation is that all the media coverage only made people more aware of the existence of the Silk Road and similar markets."

The researcher says that as Ulbricht made more and more headlines, sales on the dark web grew.

On the other hand, he notes that it’s possible that Ulbricht’s life sentence did have the intended effect—to deter new buyers and sellers—saying that the number of new members may "have been much larger if Silk Road’s founder had been acquitted.”

Either way, it’s safe to say that the dark web and illegal online transactions aren’t going away any time soon. Newsweek reported last year that drug sales on the dark web have tripled since 2013. And according to Quartz, about 50 new marketplaces have popped up in the Silk Road’s wake.

The Silk Road launched in 2011. In 2013, the FBI shut down the website and arrested Ross Ulbricht. In 2015, Ulbricht was convicted of charges including engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise, narcotics trafficking, money laundering and computer hacking. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr