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Dark Web Market Admins React to Silk Road Life Sentence

We spoke to admins of other dark web markets over encrypted chat.

by Joseph Cox
Jun 1 2015, 11:25am

Image: pikcha/Shutterstock

Last week, convicted Silk Road operator Ross Ulbricht received two life sentences without parole. The prosecution had asked for him to be given "a lengthy sentence" in order to dissuade other people from setting up similar sites.

However, other dark web market administrators interviewed by Motherboard said they would continue to provide a platform for the trade of drugs, weapons, and more besides.

"No, it doesn't make us consider shutting down," one of the administrators of TheRealDeal market, who also used the screen name 'TheRealDeal', said over encrypted chat. The market launched a few months ago and specializes in selling computer exploits, but drugs are also available for purchase on its digital shelves.

"We have to carry on with business," said Alpha02, the administrator of AlphaBay market, also over encrypted chat. AlphaBay has a large array of drugs on offer, thousands of fraud-related items such as credit card details, and a number of automatic weapons including AK-47s. As for why he was pushing ahead, "We all need money to eat," Alpha02 said.

Screenshot from the AlphaBay dark web market

If anything, the trial of Ulbricht seems to have been an informative experience for the administrators, as both said they had paid attention to the mistakes made with Silk Road, and intended to not to make the same.

Those mistakes included Ulbricht posting an advert for the Silk Road using his personal email address, and keeping a meticulous diary of the ins and outs of the site's maintenance and construction. The latter proved instrumental for the prosecutors' case, with even the judge telling Ulbricht, "It is still unclear to me why you ever kept a journal."

Before the life sentence was given to Ulbricht, TheRealDeal claimed to already have considered the risks involved in embarking on a dark web enterprise.

"The risks are known, they always were. In some countries you could potentially get the death penalty. Drug markets existed before Tor and before [Silk Road], anyone involved in such activities should know the risk," the admin said. Receiving a life sentence was a possibility that "every market admin should keep in mind."

"Courts can stop a man, but they can't stop an ideology."

Nevertheless, neither of the administrators thought that life in prison was a fair punishment for running a dark web market.

"They obviously wanted to make an example of him," TheRealDeal said. "Running Silk Road would have probably deserved 10 years, but not more," Alpha02 added.

Since Silk Road was shut down and its owner arrested in 2013, dark web markets have exploded in popularity. Overall, security researcher Gwern Branwen estimates around 70 sites have existed.

"Operating a market looks pretty attractive at this point. Very few arrests compared to how many [markets] there have been," Branwen previously told Motherboard.

Others feel that Ulbricht's life sentence isn't going to act as a deterrent for people jumping on the dark web market bandwagon.

"Sending special forces goons to kill Pablo Escobar, then having a picture of the guys posing with his corpse on the front cover of a book didn't deter anyone from selling cocaine," said Nachash, an administrator of the now-defunct Doxbin site, which hosted the personal details of tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people. Although Doxbin isn't a dark web market, it was shut down as part of Operation Onymous, a law enforcement effort to seize many different dark web sites.

This new landscape of dark web markets won't be changing anytime soon, according to Alpha02. "Courts can stop a man, but they can't stop an ideology. Darknet markets will always be around, until the War on Drugs stops."