Imagine a marketplace where buyers and sellers trade goods without any government regulation, with no actual money and with 100% anonymity. For two years this was the reality for users of the Silk Road, a website operating in the so-called Dark Web – the hidden part of the internet. All thanks to a man who called himself Dread Pirate Roberts.
On October 1, 2013 a loud crashing broke the silence at a branch of the San Francisco public library. A group of men flashing FBI badges swarmed in on a visitor who was sitting quietly with his laptop in the Sci-fi section. Shocked librarians were unaware that the feds had just arrested Ross Ulbricht, whom they claimed was “Dread Pirate Roberts” – the owner of an underground online empire called Silk Road.
A former physics and engineering student from Texas, Ross Ulbricht launched his website in 2011. A “shadow eBay” that allowed people to freely buy and sell illegal goods, it became a massive success. Anything from marijuana and cocaine to fake ID’s and firearms were sold through this website tucked away in a dark corner of the Internet — the so-called Tor network. Silk Road accepted bitcoins as its currency and was accessible only through special software that helped both the buyer and the seller stay anonymous.
In less than two years Silk Road generated more than $1.2 billion in sales, making its owner a very rich man.
In 2012 government agents arrested 47-year-old Curtis Green also known as Chronicpain — the administrator of Silk Road hired by Dread Pirate Roberts (or “DPR”, as Green called him). Joshua Bearman from Wired Magazine wrote that Chronicpain was unpacking a shipment of cocaine when feds knocked on the door of his Utah home:
“Green considered the package and then took it into his kitchen, where he tore it open with scissors, sending up a plume of white powder that covered his face and numbed his tongue. Just then the front door burst open, knocked off its hinges by a SWAT team wielding a battering ram. Quickly the house was flooded by cops in riot gear and black masks, weapons at the ready. There was Green, covered in cocaine and flanked by two Chihuahuas.”
But even with Chronicpain in custody, it was no easy undertaking to catch Silk Road’s mastermind. The feds set up a 40-man task force to track him down. They even posed as drug lords online to lure DPR out. But eventually it wasn’t chat transcripts that led to Ross Ulbricht's arrest. His personal email account was linked to the project by the FBI and it was a just matter of time before his real IP address led the agents to Ulbricht’s physical location.
In May of 2015 a federal court sentenced Ross Ulbricht to life in prison.
His supporters maintain that Ulbricht was a young idealist who ran his project out of his libertarian beliefs and that he’s not a cold-blooded criminal.
The man’s family claims his sentencing is a dangerous precedent, since it makes a website owner solely responsible for the actions of its users. Ulbricht’s mother Lyn, when interviewed by radio host Alex Jones, said that the family will continue their legal battle:
“There are so many people in prison who are either innocent or non-violent. And it just seems like it’s draconian… The prisons are just overflowing. Yes, I agree that we need to get back to the rule of law, and have fair trials.”
Even with Dread Pirate Roberts behind bars, his ideas have spread across the Dark Web. In 2014 alone police in 17 countries took down more than 400 websites similar to Silk Road. Operation Onymous led to 17 arrests, making it obvious that besides blocking the content, the authorities are increasingly going after the webmasters – those who just like Ross Ulbricht challenged the system and set up their own utopian markets – free trade zones unburdened by national currencies and government control.