The Federal Bureau of Investigation, in tandem with local law enforcement agencies, has shut down the underground web drug marketplace Silk Road, and arrested its alleged proprietor.
Authorities called Silk Road, where users swapped the artificial currency known as Bitcoin for illicit drugs, "the most sophisticated and extensive criminal marketplace on the internet today." The FBI pegged sales on the site at more than 9.5 million Bitcoins, or roughly $1.2 billion given the current market for the pseudo-money.
The man behind the site, it turns out, is not a ferocious sea-faring barbarian or a real life Princess Bride character, which is what his moniker, Dread Pirate Roberts, suggested. Rather, he is a nerdy 29-year-old San Franciscan named Ross William Ulbricht.
Ulbricht earned a bachelor's degree in physics from the University of Texas, according to the federal complaint, and later attended the Pennsylvania School of Materials Science and Engineering. A LinkedIn profile referenced in the complaint as belonging to Ulbricht reads, in part, like an anti-government manifesto:
I want to use economic theory as a means to abolish the use of coercion and aggression amongst mankind. Just as slavery has been abolished most everywhere, I believe violence, coercion and all forms of force by one person over another can come to an end. The most widespread and systemic use of force is amongst institutions and governments, so this is my current point of effort. The best way to change a government is to change the minds of the governed, however. To that end, I am creating an economic simulation to give people a first-hand experience of what it would be like to live in a world without the systemic use of force. [LinkedIn]
Ulbricht espoused similarly grandiose political ideals in an interview with Forbes' Andy Greenberg earlier this year, conducted anonymously via Silk Road's encrypted messaging systems.
Roberts also has a political agenda: He sees himself not just as an enabler of street-corner pushers but also as a radical libertarian revolutionary carving out an anarchic digital space beyond the reach of the taxation and regulatory powers of the state — Julian Assange with a hypodermic needle. "We can't stay silent forever. We have an important message, and the time is ripe for the world to hear it," says Roberts. "What we're doing isn't about scoring drugs or 'sticking it to the man.' It's about standing up for our rights as human beings and refusing to submit when we've done no wrong."
"Silk Road is a vehicle for that message," he writes to me from somewhere in the internet's encrypted void. "All else is secondary." [Forbes]
Contrary to the feds' claim that he founded Silk Road, Ulbricht told Forbes he bought control of it from its original owner. A February 2012 post on the site's forums declared the administrator would from then on be known as the Dread Pirate Roberts. In the Princess Bride, that name belongs to a line of feared captains who each, when tired of piracy, pass down the moniker and sneak away to retire.
Ulbricht, who was arrested at a San Francisco public library on Tuesday, did more than just run a massive drug operation. He also once tried to orchestrate the murder of someone who threatened to extort him by releasing the identities of thousands of Silk Road customers, according to authorities.
A user under the alias "FriendlyChemist" allegedly demanded $500,000 in exchange for not leaking those names. Rather than deal, Ulbricht instead paid another user $150,000 to supposedly kill off FriendlyChemist — the complaint suggests there was no actual hit — after saying his nemesis was "a liability and I wouldn't mind if he was executed."
Agents finally found Ulbricht after intercepting a package at the Canadian border bound for his home. Inside, they found nine fake IDs, which he allegedly was going to use to rent more servers for the growing site.
Ulbricht has been charged with narcotics trafficking conspiracy, computer hacking conspiracy, and money laundering conspiracy. Whether he will cast himself as a persecuted libertarian apostle a la Julian Assange is yet to be seen.