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16 August 2013updated 26 Sep 2015 12:01pm

Why Silk Road basically sells insurance and financial products, not drugs

The world's biggest online drug marketplace is more like the world's biggest service company

By Alex Hern

Forbes reporter Andy Greenberg secured the interview of the year this week, with Dread Pirate Roberts, the pseudonymous owner/CEO/”center of trust” of Silk Road, “the Web’s busiest bazaar for heroin, methamphetamines, crack, cocaine, LSD, ecstasy and enough strains of marijuana to put an Amsterdam coffee shop to shame”. The interview is an insight into the political motivations behind the site, as well as the levels of paranoia you need to have to run a multimillion dollar drug empire online.

But for this blog, perhaps the most insightful quote didn’t come from Roberts (who takes his pseudonym from cult 80s film The Princess Bride) at all. Instead, it’s this take:

“Silk Road doesn’t really sell drugs. It sells insurance and financial products,” says Carnegie Mellon computer engineering professor Nicolas Christin. “It doesn’t really matter whether you’re selling T-shirts or cocaine. The business model is to commoditize security.”

Silk Road is a marketplace; it’s far closer to the eBay of drugs than the Amazon of them. And so its main purpose is merely connecting buyers and sellers.

But even more than with eBay, there are major trust issues involved in doing so. No-one wants to actually share any information which could be used to track them down (although the buyer has to give the seller at least somewhere to post too), and if you do get scammed, you’ve got even less chance of using the law to get your money back, on account of what you buy being really illegal.

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Some of the Silk Road’s services specifically get around this problem: so, for example, the site offers escrow services to buyers, which only release their cash to the seller once they get the goods. And, famously, all purchases are made using Bitcoin, the anonymous peer-to-peer currency which increased in value by almost 20 times over the first few months of this year.

That brought its own problems, which Silk Road also helps alleviate. Dealers can price their goods in dollars, even as they get paid in Bitcoin, and Silk Road will ensure that the fluctuations don’t hit them too hard. In effect, the company is running a small FX trading division, although with only one currency pair being traded, they won’t make much money from it.

But as competition in the sector grows – a rival site, Atlantis, has launched and is running direct campaigns against Silk Road – the lawlessness may start being something which no amount of innovation can solve. Already, there are murmurs that an outage at Silk Road was engineered by the newcomer. Roberts estimates the value of Silk Road at “10 figures, maybe 11”; he’s got a fight ahead to keep it to himself.

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