You may remember the Silk Road. It was an online black market – part of the “dark web” – where illegal drugs and fake IDs could be bought and sold anonymously. The kingpin of the Silk Road was known as “Dread Pirate Roberts,” and was, for a time, the most wanted man on the web. Behind that “Princess Bride”-inspired pseudonym was a young Texan, Ross Ulbricht.
Journalist Nick Bilton describes Ulbricht’s transition from Boy Scout to brazen web boss in the new book “American Kingpin”. He says Ulbricht started out as a sweet kid from Westlake Hills, near Austin – helpful to others, and enamored of Libertarian politics and computers.
“A number of people who’ve read the book say ‘I was that kid’ or ‘I knew that kid,'” Bilton says. “He was just this lost idealist who had this really great idea to build something that was going to have some effect on society.”
On the beginning of Ulbricht’s big idea:
“He came up with this idea. He said, ‘What if drugs were legal?’ If drugs were treated like Big Macs or alcohol, he reasoned that if that were the case, people wouldn’t be killed in drug wars, that people would be able to get better products. And the government wouldn’t be able to throw a million plus people in jail for smoking weed or doing heroin. He figured if [he] could build a website where anyone could buy or sell anything without the watchful eye of the government, it would have a positive effect on society.”
On technology that made the Silk Road site possible:
“There were a few devices that he used to build this. One was called the Tor web browser, which was actually built by the U.S. government for when people were overseas so they could talk to their families without the risk of the country they were in tracking them. And it’s just like any other web browser, like Firefox or Chrome, but this one puts you into what they call the ‘Dark Web’ which is a completely anonymous version of the internet.
“Around 2011, came Bitcoin. And Bitcoin was essentially digital cash that you could use on the internet, and that was not traceable. And with those two things that Ross had learned about, he was able to start working on this website called Silk Road that he imagined would be essentially an anonymous store where you could buy and sell anything. And it quickly spun wildly out of control.”
On how the Silk Road spun out of control:
“The original idea was it was just going to be mild drugs – marijuana, magic mushrooms. And his reasoning behind that, which I actually completely understand, was no one’s ever died from a marijuana overdose. … About five or six months after it started, Gawker, the now-defunct blog, wrote a piece on this website where you could buy and sell drugs. And it exploded into this new stratosphere of attention, and people started selling heroin, and cocaine, and Uzies, and poisons, and there [were] going to be body parts, and it was just insane how many people were using it. And the money that was coming in from it was just hundreds of millions of dollars.”
On how Ross Ulbricht changed:
“You see him start to morph. I think what happened is that he was running this online world, and no one else knew about it, with the exception of maybe one or two people who he had told he no longer did it. And he was running this universe, and he was God in it. Some of his family members used to call him “Rebel Ross” at the time, because his personality changed off the site, too. And he became so enamored with what he built, he truly did believe it was going to change society and that eventually, it would prove that legalizing drugs was the only way for the government to go. And then he decided he was going to do anything to protect it.”
On precautions Ulbricht took to hide from authorities and other adversaries:
“There had been a few things that had happened before the authorities caught up with him. The person he had put a hit out on, rumors had been spreading around the site about it, and other people were threatening to come after Ross Ulbricht – the Dread Pirate Roberts – so he went into hiding. … He thought he was going to get away. He had been doing it so long that if they hadn’t caught him now, why would they catch him in the future. And of course, he was wrong.”
On what happened when Ulbricht went to trial:
“He pled not guilty and was actually found guilty on seven counts that were dropped to five. He got two life sentences and 40 years, and he’s actually appealing that now. But it was very, very hard for him to deny that he was the Dread Pirate Roberts because of what was caught on his laptop – transaction, and tens of millions of dollars in bitcoin. So it was a very difficult defense, and he was offered a plea deal, and a lot of people think he should have taken it.”
Written by Shelly Brisbin.