In October 2013 the FBI arrested a young entrepreneur named Ross Ulbricht at the Glen Park branch of the San Francisco Public Library. It was the culmination of a two-year investigation into a vast online drug market called Silk Road. The authorities charged that Ulbricht – an idealistic 29-year-old Eagle Scout from Austin Texas – was the kingpin of the operation. They said he’d reaped millions from the site – all transacted anonymously with Bitcoin. They said he’d devolved into a cold-blooded criminal – hiring hit men to take out those who crossed him.
Writer Joshuah Bearman spent more than a year reporting and writing a definitive account of how Ulbricht founded Silk Road – how it grew into a $1.2 billion operation – and how federal law enforcement shut it down.
As he discusses in this video interview – the story turned out to be much more than a crime narrative. It’s also a gripping tale of ambition – temptation – and lost innocence.
Ross Ulbricht, the man behind illegal online drug emporium Silk Road, was sentenced to life in prison on Friday by Judge Katherine Forrest of Manhattan’s US district court for the southern district of New York.
Before the sentencing the parents of the victims of drug overdoses addressed the court. Ulbricht broke down in tears. ‘I never wanted that to happen’ he said. ‘I wish I could go back and convince myself to take a different path’.
The 31-year-old physics graduate and former boy scout was handed five sentences: one for 20 years – one for 15 years – one for five and two for life. All are to be served concurrently with no chance of parole.
The judge handed out the most severe sentence available to the man US authorities identified as ‘Dread Pirate Roberts’ pseudonymous founder of an Amazon-like online market for illegal goods.
‘The stated purpose [of Silk Road] was to be beyond the law. In the world you created over time, democracy didn’t exist. You were captain of the ship- the dread Pirate Roberts. You made your own laws’ Forrest told Ulbricht as she read the sentence.
Ulbrict had begged the judge to ‘leave a light at the end of the tunnel’ ahead of his sentence. ‘I know you must take away my middle years – but please leave me my old age’ he wrote to Forrest this week. Prosecutors wrote Forrest a 16-page letter requesting the opposite: ‘[A] lengthy sentence – one substantially above the mandatory minimum is appropriate in this case.”
‘I’ve changed. I’m not the man I was when I created Silk Road. I’m a little wiser. A little more mature and much more humble’ Ulbricht pled in court.
Forrest rejected arguments that Silk Road had reduced harm among drug users by taking illegal activities off the street. ‘No drug dealer from the Bronx has ever made this argument to the court. It’s a privileged argument and it’s an argument made by one of the privileged’ she said.
Silk Road was once the largest ‘dark web’ marketplace for illegal drugs and other services. In March 2013 the secret site listed 10,000 items for sale – 7,000 of which were drugs including cannabis – MDMA – and heroin. Prosecutors said Silk Road had generated nearly $213.9m (£140m) in sales and $13.2m in commissions before police shut it down.
Ross Ulbricht, the mastermind behind The Silk Road drugs trading website – was convicted in February 2015. In the lead up to his sentencing – Deep Web explores whether Ulbricht was the swashbuckling criminal kingpin he was made out to be in court – or simply a naive tech visionary.
Narrated by Keanu Reeves – it questions the FBI’s methods in seizing the Silk Road’s servers – and asks whether the investigation has chilling consequences for state surveillance.
The founder of the Silk Road is headed to prison this week – but he may have actually made drug use and the drug trade less dangerous.
This week a federal judge will sentence Ross Ulbricht – founder and operator of the Silk Road – to at least 30 years in prison – after he was convicted earlier this year of a handful of federal felonies for running the dark web drug sales website.
Silk Road was the flagship for the emerging billion-dollar online black market for drugs – and its takedown sent shudders throughout the shadowy industry. But those were mere shudders – not death knells – and with Silk Road replacements like Agora – Blackbank – and dozens of others doing land office business and continuing to frustrate law enforcement – the dark web appears poised to take up a larger and larger share of the illicit drug trade.
In seeking a lengthy sentence for Ulbricht – federal prosecutors portrayed Silk Road as a more dangerous version of a traditional drug marketplace – but Ulbricht’s defense attorneys and some harm reduction specialists retort that the Silk Road actually reduced the risk of both drug use – and making black market drug transactions.
In a sentencing memo to the court, the defense team argued that Silk Road —and by extension, other dark web black market drug sales websites—actually reduce the harm related to drug use and the black market and asked the judge to take that into account during sentencing.
“In contrast to the government’s portrayal of the Silk Road web site as a more dangerous version of a traditional drug marketplace – in fact the Silk Road web site was in many respects the most responsible such marketplace in history – and consciously and deliberately included recognized harm reduction measures – including access to physician counseling’ – wrote Ulbricht’s lead defense attorney Joshua Dratel in the filing. ‘In addition – transactions on the Silk Road web site were significantly safer than traditional illegal drug purchases – and included quality control and accountability features that made purchasers substantially safer – than they were when purchasing drugs in a conventional manner’.
How did Silk Road make drugs safer? Here’s how:
The possibilities for using Bitcoin in the real world had not progressed much since NewLibertyStandard’s offer of SpongeBob SquarePants stickers. Mark Karpeles was still taking Bitcoin for his web-hosting services – and a farmer in Massachusetts was selling alpaca socks. But the range of products available for Bitcoin expanded in a dramatic way a few days before the price of Bitcoin shot from around 50 cents to above $1 for the first time – when an unassuming post on the Bitcoin forum heralded the next wave of Bitcoin commerce.‘Has anyone seen Silk Road yet? It’s kind of like an anonymous amazon.com. I don’t think they have heroin on there – but they are selling other stuff’.
The posting was made by someone who went by the screenname altoid. In real life he was Ross Ulbricht – a 6-foot-2 surfer-cum-scientist who had been planning Silk Road for months – when he put his innocent-sounding post on the forum.
For Ross – a fun-loving, well-educated twenty-six-year-old – the creation of Silk Road had begun in earnest in July 2010 when he had sold a cheap house in Pennsylvania that he’d acquired while he was a graduate student there. With the $30,000 from the sale, Ross rented a cabin about an hour from his home in Austin, Texas. He also purchased petri dishes – humidifiers – and thermometers – along with peat – verm – gypsum – and a copy of The Construction and Operation of Clandestine Drug Laboratories – by Jack B. Nimble.
The psychedelic mushroom lab he set up in the cabin was not created with the intent of enabling Ross to become a petty drug dealer. He had much grander visions of his life than that. From the time he sold the house in Pennsylvania he knew he wanted to set up a new kind of online market – where people could buy all the things that aren’t available on ordinary online markets.
This unusual and dangerous business concept was the product of the idiosyncratic mixture of influences that had shaped Ross’s mind. His parents had been hippies of sorts – taking him on vacations to Costa Rica – where his father taught him to surf. His curiosity about and penchant for the outdoors had later helped turn him into a seeker – looking for ways to free his mind and achieve oneness through Eastern philosophy and designer drugs. Ross came from Texas – and his search for freedom led him to some of the thinkers on the border between libertarian thought and anarchism – the same philosophers who had influenced many of the Cypherpunks – and he came to believe that the ultimate hurdle to personal freedom was government. At Penn State he had the unique distinction of being a member of both the campus libertarians – and the West African drumming ensemble. He would describe his ideological awakening in spiritual terms.