Ross Ulbricht finished a Bachelor's in Physics at University of Texas at Dallas, then went on to graduate work at Penn State before founding the Silk Road. Guardian: "US Attorney Preet Bharara called Ulbricht a 'drug dealer and criminal profiteer.'" Image Source: FreeRoss.org.
Imagine a world in which the Internet was never invented. The planet as it existed, circa 1988, moved forward with the computer technology of that time and developed it to serve purposes other than free global communications. Instead, human beings solved the energy crisis, or landed on Mars, or explored the oceans' floors. In that world, what would Ross Ulbricht have become instead of what he did become - the libertarian founder of the Silk Road? His criminal conviction is another of the Technological Revolution's little carbon footprints. It shows how certain sections of free, developed societies are moving out of sync with institutional seats of order; the latter are typically slower to change, or change according to their own internal logic.
Ulbricht's case also reveals how the middle class is fracturing generationally due to this trend. In case Generation Y's Millennials ever thought they could dodge the establishment, work around it, dump it, hack it, whistleblow it, they just received their wake-up call. On 29 May 2015, a US federal court in Manhattan convicted 31-year-old Ulbricht. He was sentenced to life in prison, with no possibility of parole, and ordered to pay a restitution of over USD $183 million. Finance Magnates: "'Everybody gasped' upon hearing the judge’s decision, remarked Alex Winter, creator of Deep Web, a documentary on Silk Road to debut [on 31 May 2015]." Judge Katherine Forrest remarked:
Ulbricht's response:“The stated purpose [of the 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,” she told Ulbricht as she read the sentence, referring to his pseudonym as the Silk Road’s leader. “Silk Road’s birth and presence asserted that its … creator was better than the laws of this country. This is deeply troubling, terribly misguided, and very dangerous.”
The Washington Post tracked Ulbricht all over social media and determined that his profile led authorities to him; the newspaper also had a look at his LinkedIn profile to determine his motivations. Except for the startling fact that he had founded the Silk Road, he was a garden variety sophomoric libertarian: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.” ... “I wanted to empower people to make choices in their lives. ... to have privacy and anonymity,” Ulbricht told the judge. “I’m not a sociopathic person trying to express some inner badness.”
Forbes found Ulbricht to be more frank on the Silk Road's community forums:He described, in an abstract personal statement on his LinkedIn profile, his attitudes toward capitalism and economic theory. It sounds a bit like a romanticized description of Silk Road:I want to use economic theory as a means to abolish the use of coercion and agression 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.
A member of the ... [University of Texas at Dallas's] College Libertarians group, he took part in on-campus debates that were documented by the school’s newspaper, The Daily Collegian. In one article from March 2008, Ulbricht is identified as a supporter of Ron Paul who had attempted to become a delegate for the then-presidential candidate at the Republican National Convention. “There’s a lot to learn from him and his message of what it means to be a U.S. citizen and what it means to be a free individual,” ... [Ulbricht] told the school paper. “[Ron Paul] ... doesn’t compromise his integrity as a politician and he fights quite diligently to restore the principles that our country was founded on.”In Silk Road’s community forums, the Dread Pirate Roberts always made the libertarian underpinnings of his organization clear. In Oct. 2012, he noted in a post: “Silk Road was founded on libertarian principles and continues to be operated on them … The same principles that have allowed Silk Road to flourish can and do work anywhere human beings come together. The only difference is that the State is unable to get its thieving murderous mitts on it.” He called Paul “a mighty hero in my book” in a note from Nov. 2012.
Screenshot from the closed Silk Road. Image Source: Silk Road via AP via Guardian.
Ulbricht's severe sentence makes him an example. He was part of the threat that new technology poses to the old establishment. Is he a martyr? Or did Ulbricht deserve the conviction and reflect the worst future brutalities of an inchoate order, worse than anything the old school military-industrial complex could imagine? Guardian: "Ross Ulbricht said he ‘wanted to empower people to make choices’. Prosecutors said he made $13m in commission on illegal deals – and attempted to order six murders." The Guardian observes that the Silk Road was tame compared to other Deep Web sites:
Libertarian though Silk Road’s philosophy might have been with regard to drugs, it nonetheless operated with a moral code. Child pornography was banned, as were stolen credit cards, weapons and paid-for assassinations – all of which were available on other, murkier dark web sites.After Silk Road was closed, however, rather than dampen the market, it fragmented it. Dozens of sites sprang up, not all of them operated by the same set of moral codes. Several, including the so-called Silk Road 2.0, which was set up by several administrators of the first site, have since also been raided and shut down. Others turned out to be scams: one, a large marketplace called Evolution, saw administrators exit with more than $12m in Bitcoin.Despite all this, the market has continued to grow, though because of its fractured nature it is difficult to properly assess its size. James – not his real name – is the editor of DeepDotWeb, a news site which focuses on darknet marketplaces and maintains an up-to-date list of which markets are on or offline. He said the current market was “WAY bigger” than it was in the days of Silk Road.James said it could safely be assumed that the daily turnover of the biggest markets – Agora is the largest, followed in no particular order by Nucleus, Middle Earth, Abrax, and Alphabay – is in the order of more than a million dollars a day. He estimated the market cap to be in the “hundreds of millions” of dollars.
Image Source: Social Anxiety Support.
Ulbricht's supporters see themselves as cryptoanarchists. Their alienation from the old guard makes me think of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground (1864; in Russian here and English here), a work in which paranoia, ennui, escapism and misdirected idealism surround an Underground Man. It is a proto-revolutionary piece, written over fifty years ahead of the actual Russian Revolution of 1917. Dostoyevsky opens his novella with a note to the reader of this fictitious diary:
The Underground Man is aware that society is a mess. He wants to change things, but is fixated on ideals which are so far removed from reality that he becomes a dystopic Hamlet, unable to act. The rift between his ideals and reality becomes more real as a force of change than his actual ability to change reality. There are three important things about Dostoyevsky's Underground Man which shed light on the Ulbricht case. One is that the character typifies a certain kind of toxic social alienation, caused by the society at large, and masquerading as strength and revolutionary virtue in the mind of its insecure protagonist. The Underground Man is privately crippled by self-doubt, but is consumed by a sense of personal 'specialness' and uniqueness that sets him apart to do great things, which he never achieves. He feels, through his advanced perspective, that he cannot accomplish anything through the system as it exists, and so feels he has a carte blanche to express his frustration and alienation misanthropically, by flouting social conventions, expectations, and the boundaries of social decency. With this psychology, the character is willing to exercise and defend his idealized free will even if it makes him socially destructive and self-destructive. Google Books: "The Underground Man so chillingly depicted here has become an archetypal figure loathsome and prophetic in contemporary culture."The author of the diary and the diary itself are, of course, imaginary. Nevertheless it is clear that such persons as the writer of these notes not only may, but positively must, exist in our society, when we consider the circumstances in the midst of which our society is formed.
Secondly, the Underground Man is an unreliable narrator. It would be best not to take him literally, because he is not the revolutionary he wants to be. However, the account of the Underground Man's miserable dilemma - the novella itself - is the meta-document which is presented as a force of change. This work was intended by Dostoyevsky to highlight a problem with marginalized citizens like the Underground Man, who perceive their country's moral bankruptcy and feel the shock ahead of the curve. They don't know how to resolve the problems they see, because the vast majority of the old society is still chugging along and does not believe their warnings. Finally, for libertarians, Dostoyevsky's novella is a treatise on how hard it is to exercise free will successfully, by which the great Russian writer meant responsibly and morally. Dostoyevsky asked how an idealized (virtual) push for change could be aligned with a complex reality that was moving in fits and starts, without enshrining nihilism and lawlessness.
Image Source: Invention Machine.
Image Source: Raw Science.
Ulbricht and his libertarian comrades did not reach their conclusions in a vacuum. Post-Recession, you can't blame them for their anger, their calls to change the economic system while overhauling politics and society. Their willingness to operate beyond the pale came out of what they view as cultural collapse. Why should they take their cues from a totally compromised establishment? Why should they turn their talents to supporting the infant structure of government mass surveillance; they know that few members of the general public grasp how urgently they need to confront this problem. The Deep Web, as well as the Silk Road and the Bitcoin currency used on it, were developed in the name of attacking monolithic governmental and financial power structures, while protecting freedom.
Unfortunately, the Web's anti-establishment cannot safeguard the freedom it claims to uphold. It is neither a unified movement, nor a coherent one. There is a lot at stake, and many temptations. Why would today's hacktivist anti-heroes be collectively more honourable and less ruthless, just because they are anti-establishment? They aim to acquire the power of the establishment, often armed with only a superficial grasp of politics and simplistic self-righteousness. Why build a new cryptoanarchic order if, twenty years from now, it will kick in your door at three in the morning, throttle you, and imprison you in an anonymous disappearance?
Take Heart, Brothers and Sisters: https://t.co/0FSLCXoC25— Cody R. Wilson (@Radomysisky) May 29, 2015
If he was no different than any other drug dealer, why give him life?— Cody R. Wilson (@Radomysisky) May 29, 2015
@Radomysisky president pays murderers for hire daily to kill people based on meta data, no charges— pierebel (@pierebel) May 29, 2015
@Radomysisky Because he was an intelligent, diligent Rothbardian anarchocapitalist. Who created a trustworthy anonymous institution.— J Schmidt (@JSBTC) May 29, 2015
@Radomysisky not even a fair comparison. Simply created a marketplace....— Chris MacPherson (@ChrisMacSEA) May 29, 2015
@Radomysisky had little to do with drugs. They dislike that he undermined the power of the state. The judge said almost exactly this.— MG (@_MG_) May 30, 2015
@Radomysisky @kristovatlas Because he's a poster-child of an example the System would love to highlight. #prison industrial complex— Fanfare (@fanfare100) May 30, 2015
@Radomysisky A public crucifix at the (digital) crossroads, a dismembered head on the (proverbial) London Bridge— jessy smith (@jessyneue) May 30, 2015
@_MG_ @Radomysisky hah, the judge is saying ross blatantly disregarded the law, not that he was a threat to the order— Blue Meanie (@BlueMeanie4) May 30, 2015
@BlueMeanie4 @Radomysisky you don’t talk about “creating a world where democracy doesn’t exist” if the only point is “you broke a drug law”— MG (@_MG_) May 30, 2015
Cody Wilson's and followers' tweets after the Ulbricht verdict.
Amir Taaki "New Future." Talk in Bratislava hackerspace "Progressbar" at unSystem preparation meetup (posted on Youtube March 2013). Video Source: Youtube via Cody Wilson.
At the same time, there is a danger that figures such as Ulbricht can be misrepresented and demonized because they are seriously challenging fundamental ways of doing things. They can be condemned by a public with little understanding or whether the person being judged is actually a criminal. Deep Web documentary director Alex Winter untangled the trail of disinformation and argued that the architects of the Silk Road and other new sites such as Napster were and are not criminals, but 'cyphertechnologists' and coders who want to redefine society and business:
Outside of the tech press, Winter notes, a lot of the media coverage on the Silk Road has been “drugs and guns and hitmen—just wildly off-base.” Off-base, he says, because when he started interviewing the people who knew Silk Road he didn’t see an outfit that was all that different from those littering Silicon Valley. “I started to meet all these core architects within the Silk Road: vendors, engineers, sellers, administrators, people who were helping with scaling,” he says. “It’s obvious in retrospect but it was just like any large tech company. But it was just not represented that way in the media, so even I was caught off-guard.” ...One thing Winter found in common between Napster and Silk Road were their communities. “I noticed that even the vendors I met—to a man or woman—were not from the drug world, they were almost entirely from the tech space,” he says. “It was similar to Napster where the Napster people would always say to me that music was a delivery system for the community. So to [the Silk Road people] they needed something to market that would draw people in order to create this community. That doesn’t mean they didn’t have drug issues, but they were really largely driven by these ideals.” While he expected to meet a lot of people saying, “Yeah, I’m making a ton of money selling weed!” that wasn’t the case. Instead he found people from the hacktivist movement and Occupy. “I suited up expecting to go elbow-to-elbow with drug dealers and I really didn’t have that,” he says. “The biggest ‘aha!’ moment that changed the movie was that all these people I’m talking about, they came from different walks of life and some of them didn’t agree with each other politically at all.”
For the uninitiated. Ten facts about the Deep Web. The video does not mention the Deep Web's child and snuff porn. Youtuber comment: "#11: They sell stuffed human corpses that can be used as sex dolls. Have fun sleeping tonight." Video Source: Youtube.
Developments in cyber-innovation, cyber-government and cyber-law must also account for the fact that the Deep Web and other cutting-edge tech developments bring cyber-idealists together with those in the Underground. If it came to a final showdown between those elements, who would win? Last year, the BBC quoted Leon Trotsky: "In any revolution, it is inevitable that the leading lights will end divided, possibly betraying and killing each other."
Ulbricht's family defends him in the documentary, Deep Web (2015). Video Source: Youtube.
Will privacy and liberty be appropriated as political rallying cries for those who want to commit crimes anonymously? Is the future anarchocapitalist-libertarian revolution going to hire the Pedo Support Corps or the Assassins' Community? Every grey area on the Internet is a future power base available for capture. In that sense, Ulbricht's Silk Road may have played directly into the hands of a future totalitarian dictatorship, run by the current establishment, the anti-establishment, or - most likely - a nasty hybrid between the two.
Deep Web Official Trailer (2015). Video Source: Youtube.
Regardless of who ends up in control when this power game of musical chairs stops, it is almost certain that the current freedoms on the Internet will diminish, not grow. Today's libertine games could easily be foundations for tomorrow's neo-Puritan backlash. The Web and Deep Web are the bastard children of the Sexual Revolution and the Communications Revolution. The dismantlement of values from the 1960s to the 1980s was followed by throwing open the doors to any and all information from the 1990s to the 2010s. In this climate, cyberethics did not develop in parallel with cyberfreedoms.
What if today's Internet only offered freedom as a way of giving people enough rope with which to hang themselves? Who really believes that anti-heroes like Ulbricht and worse allow access to hard drugs, child porn, cannibalism and snuff videos in the name of safeguarding democratic freedom? It is a mixed message as ridiculous as it is treacherous, because freedom is supposed to come hand-in-hand with social conscience and responsibility. People were not granted freedoms in democratic countries to do whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. Freedoms were and are part of a social contract, granted in exchange for citizens' common agreement that they would uphold their society and prevent it from sliding into degradation, poverty, chaos, and ruin. Libertarianism gained traction over the past fifteen years alongside the rise of the Internet for two reasons. First, foreign affairs after 9/11 got tangled up with the explosion of new media and as a result, sharp political disagreements arose over what it meant to fulfill's one's responsibility to uphold a free society. Secondly, on the regular World Wide Web as well as the Deep Web, the Internet became a place where you could do, say, or see anything as long as your identity was hidden. Liberty has become confused with libertinism.
Going forward from 1995, the Internet was not deliberately set up to be a honey trap of freedoms, waiting to be exploited by the future founders of a totalitarian order. It was conceived as being just the opposite. Yet looking back on the period from 1995 to the present, future analysts may see it that way, because the outcome will look so obvious as to have been predetermined. Freedoms available now will allow anyone to compromise themselves, digging as deep a hole for individual reputation as he or she wants.
Everyone now has a profile that indicates what they do online. And if you think your profile and actions can be made permanently anonymous, then you are a naïve amateur. In 2010, Real Independent News and Film observed: "In the case of anonymity on the internet it is best to expect none." In 2013, mainstream sites mumbled, "Is Tor's anonymous Internet still secure?" At the end of 2014, Gizmodo pondered which encryptions the NSA still could not crack. There is a shadow of anonymity now, but individuals' online activity profiles only wait for coding and technology sophisticated enough to crack encryption and crunch the huge amount of data of which they are part. Once that data can be managed and dissected, the infrastructure of control will follow. Did you, or will you, do anything online between 1995 and 2020 which you don't want made public? Because in the kangaroo courts of 2040, outing past online indiscretions might well become the norm.