The Silk Road to nowhere
A federal judge recently sentenced a 31-year-old man with no criminal record to life in prison for running a website.
Russ Ulbricht ran the Silk Road on the dark net. Many don’t know that Google-style search engines only sweep 30 percent of the internet. The other 70 percent is accessible on The Onion Router (TOR) through a freely downloadable browser. The dark web is perfectly legal, used for legitimate research purposes. The dark web is anonymous, as the digital packets are rerouted over and over through servers in multiple nations.
The dark net has its illicit side, however. There are assassination sites and child porn and hacker sites. But Ulbricht was not running that kind of site. Ulbricht is an Agorist.
Agorism is a branch of libertarian anarchy that builds voluntary alternative markets to provide a way for people to exchange forbidden but desired items. Agorists want to decrease the violence in society by making non-violent black market transactions between willing buyers and sellers as safe and secure as possible. If you buy the product peer-to-peer on your computer instead of in a dark alley with a criminal drug dealer, the black market violence caused by prohibition will be significantly lessened.
The Silk Road website offered a Bitcoin encrypted exchange that consumers ultimately controlled by rating their satisfaction publicly, like Uber does.
Silk Road specifically forbade any vendors offering child pornography or murder or fraud. There was a vibrant forum to discuss Agorist ideas. The owner of the Silk Road called himself “Dread Pirate Roberts,” based on the Princess Bride character who said he was just one of many DPRs. Silk Road had over 100,000 customers purchasing illegal drugs, banned gun products, and other illicit goods.
Then Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, saw the Silk Road website and was shocked—shocked!—to find this sort of thing right in the open, and demanded DPR’s head. DPR was tracked down through an old email address that linked Ulbricht to him. Ulbricht was arrested in a coffee shop with a laptop containing a journal that linked him to Silk Road and the DPR alter ego. That was enough to convict.
There were allegations Ulbricht betrayed his principles to order a hit on a former employee, but they were never presented at his trial. There are corruption charges against some of the investigators for stealing Bitcoins for themselves.
Worse than the conviction was the sentencing on May 29. Judge Katherine Forest shockingly gave Ulbricht a life sentence for a first offense. The prosecutors produced parents who claimed their child overdosed on drugs purchased on Silk Road. But the defense produced evidence that Silk Road actually saved lives by reducing drug gang turf wars and violent police action. The prosecution’s theory would charge Craigslist because someone you met there gave you an STD.
In fact, government nannies regularly try to take down websites that facilitate sex work. If they succeed, they only increase the violence in sex workers’ lives. Government laws enforce a pain-oriented society driven by a Calvinist ethic that values work as an end in itself, not as a means to provide for the needs of individuals, including erotic and consciousness-altering needs. The judge saw only the law, not the harms caused by the law.
The dark web, 3-D printing, and cyber currencies are here to stay. They will outlast the state. If Dread Pirate Roberts is condemned, many new Dread Pirates will appear—indeed, they already have.