01 Jul Silk Road Founder Ross Ulbricht, aka Dread Pirate Roberts, Gets Life in Prison
Ulbricht, 31, who ran the encrypted Internet website that offered illicit drugs and other types of contraband for sale through the mail, operated under the jaunty pseudonym “Dread Pirate Roberts” (from the movie “The Princess Bride”). Judge Katherine Forrest ignored Ulbricht’s pleas for leniency and his claim that he was not “a self-centered sociopath” in imposing the penalty.
Ulbricht built a criminal empire worth hundreds of millions in just three years’ time, commandeering 70 percent of the illegal online drug market before his site was finally shut down by the FBI after his arrest in October 2014.
During his days as an organized crime kingpin, Dread Pirate Roberts boldly proclaimed his libertarian principles at every turn. He portrayed himself as a fearless, swashbuckling freedom fighter, standing up for the rights of the little guy oppressed by an out-of-control police state. The safety and security of his customers came first, he said, committed as he was to non-violence and freedom from coercion. But following his conviction for multiple violations of drug trafficking laws, Ulbricht said he was a changed man who had come to see the error of his ways.
Ulbricht had been exposed as a fraud and a poseur much earlier. Following his arrest, the FBI released transcripts from a series of private online discussions, proving that Ulbricht had put out murder-for-hire contracts on six individuals whom he believed represented a threat to his control over the Silk Road.
After tracking down Ulbricht, the FBI completed its penetration of the Silk Road site, seizing assets in bitcoins worth approximately $183 million. Bitcoins function as “Dark Web” stand-ins for real money, to which they are transferrable only after being funneled through a byzantine network of shadowy “investment” outlets and invisible bank accounts that can’t be traced without extraordinary effort (if at all). It is believed that Ulbricht diverted more than $18 million into his personal tax-free bitcoin nest egg, ill-gotten gains obtained through the services he provided as a virtual facilitator of more than 1 million black market exchanges between February 2011 and October 2013.
In Defense of the Indefensible
Surprisingly, even now Ulbricht has his champions. Echoing some of his past rationalizations, they claim the Silk Road provided a safe and secure outlet for illegal drug buyers who otherwise would be forced to deal directly with armed criminals employed by a veritable rogues’ gallery of nefarious underworld actors (i.e., violent Mexican drug cartels, U.S. street gangs, outlaw motorcycle clubs, ruthless local meth kingpins, schoolyard pushers and assorted back alley thugs). The Silk Road featured an escrow service for financial protection (no payments until delivery) and a rating system where buyers could report their experiences with various sellers, guaranteeing some degree of quality control and accountability in a business where neither normally exists. Buying drugs on the Silk Road site kept people off the streets and in their homes, its defenders claim, diluting the customer bases of disreputable, unregulated operators.
And furthermore, these situational ethicists point out, the extinction of the Silk Road hasn’t meant the end of the online drug trade. In the world of illegal narcotics, the faces and the names change but the market bustles along without interruption. New entrepreneurs were ready and waiting to take Ulbricht’s place when he was removed from the scene, and since his arrest, the flow of drugs through illicit online channels has continued unabated.
A Terrible War and an Unthinkable Surrender
The assertions made in defense of Ulbricht and the Silk Road have some merit. Bloodshed and anarchy rule in the street-level drug trade, contaminated drugs are frequently peddled and purchasers do suffer needlessly because of the seediness and violence that define the conventional black market. But in the end, the quick, safe and easy efficiency of the Silk Road marketplace is what made it—and continue to make its Dark Web imitators—so dangerous and such a threat to public health.
In his presentencing letter to the judge, Ulbricht summarized the problem:
“What it [Silk Road] turned into, in part, was a convenient way for people to satisfy their drug addictions…. While I still don’t think anyone should be denied the right to make this decision for themselves, I never sought to create a site that would provide another avenue for people to feed their addictions.”
And yet that is exactly what he did. The war on drugs may be a failure, but making it painless and effortless for addicts to get their hands on heroin, methamphetamine, crack cocaine, krokodil, stolen narcotic painkillers or dozens of other highly addictive poisons isn’t an attractive alternative.
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