If I understand correctly, Ross Ulbricht created Silk Road as a general purpose online market site, similar to eBay except using Tor and Bitcoin (neither of which are illegal), and other people used it illegally. Why wasn't Ulbricht protected by Section 230?

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    Because there was also evidence that he actively contacted people he knew to be dealing drugs, ordered hits on people and so on
    – Hobbamok
    Commented Jun 27, 2022 at 10:24

3 Answers 3


Under 47 U.S. Code § 230(e)(1),

Nothing in this section shall be construed to impair the enforcement of section 223 or 231 of this title, chapter 71 (relating to obscenity) or 110 (relating to sexual exploitation of children) of title 18, or any other Federal criminal statute.

Section 230 exists to protect site operators from civil lawsuits and overzealous state/local prosecutors (there's now also an exception for prostitution and sex trafficking, but that didn't exist back in 2013). It doesn't protect site operators from federal criminal prosecution. For that, the same rules apply to site operators as apply to everyone else. Ulbricht knew and intended Silk Road to operate as a drug trafficking site, so he was criminally liable for operating it as one.

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    Oh, okay. I didn't realize he intended for it to be used for drug trafficking. If it was not intended for that purpose, but people used it for it, would he have been responsible?
    – Someone
    Commented Jun 27, 2022 at 0:33
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    @Someone: There's generally a sliding scale. The first time it happens, definitely not. And there's no exact count in law when it becomes a problem. But the courts will look at context. Same thing with The Pirate Bay: their problem too was that copyright infringement was the most prevalent use of the platform, and could not be dismissed as incidental abuse.
    – MSalters
    Commented Jun 27, 2022 at 16:10

Ulbricht was charged with seven offences: continuing a criminal enterprise, conspiracy to commit money laundering, conspiracy to commit computer hacking, conspiracy to traffic fraudulent identity documents and three counts of conspiracy to traffic narcotics.

At a jury trial the judge vacated two of the narcotics charges (finding them duplicative) and the jury decided, after hearing the evidence from the prosecution and defence, that Ulbricht was guilty of the other charges.


In addition to facilitating drug trade, Ulbricht also used his site to purchase assassinations of several "inconvenient" people. Apparently he got scammed and the killings were not carried out, but I recall that ordering these "hit jobs" added quite a lot to his sentence. Read "American Kingpin" by Nick Bilton, it's fascinating.

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