Originally, the Silk Road was a series of routes over which commerce traveled in Asia beginning over 2,000 years ago. Silk, gold, technology, religion and diseases (e.g. bubonic plague) were carried and exchanged over the Silk Road.
Fast forward to the present day and the Silk Road was, until recently, a website accessible only in the deep web and only by TOR (The Onion Router), a network and browser designed to preserve your anonymity on the web. Silk Road was the brainchild of fellow Austinite and former neighbor Ross Ulbricht. Ross was a 2002 graduate of West Lake High, a school that I pass every day coming to work. His Facebook page is still up and he seems like a pretty cool guy. We even have a mutual Facebook friend.
However, when I visited Silk Road before the feds closed it in September and arrested Ross on Oct. 2nd of this year, I found that you could purchase most any kind of drug I had ever heard of and many that I hadn't. Since I have a background in Pharmacy, that's a wide range of stuff. Cocaine, Ecstasy, black tar heroin and 'shrooms were in abundance. Apparently, you could also arrange for murder by hire and Ross is accused of that in regard to one of his clients on Silk Road supposedly threatening to expose everybody unless certain conditions were met.
The medium of exchange on Silk Road was Bitcoin, our favorite virtual currency. When Ross was arrested, the FBI seized over $3,000,000 in Bitcoins belonging to Silk Road customers. They were also trying to get an estimated 600,000 Bitcoins from Ross' personal Bitcoin wallet. That's about five percent of all the Bitcoins presently in existence.
All in all, a very sordid story, including the allegation that Ross went by the pseudonym of the "Dread Pirate Roberts", which comes from my favorite movie "The Princess Bride".
So how does a 20s something, suburban, white bread guy go from wake boarding on Lake Austin to being one of the biggest drug dealers (or at least the facilitator) in the world ?
Apparently Ross is brilliant (degree in physics at the Univ. of Texas, graduate work at Penn State), a libertarian fan of Ron Paul and idealistic and naive. On his Facebook page he wrote an essay on "Thoughts On Freedom". On his LinkedIn page, he described an idealized version of Silk Road, when he wrote: "Now, my goals have shifted. 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."
He apparently viewed Silk Road as beneficial because it was a place where people could obtain illegal drugs without the concomitant hazard of having to deal directly with a drug dealer. Regardless of your view on drugs and their use, it would seem to be preferable if people didn't have to risk their life to obtain them.
In the end, despite his brilliance and perhaps because of his naivete, he got sloppy and used his real name and address in obtaining fake passports and made other mistakes that enabled his arrest. This could have been a family member of any of us (assuming any of us has anybody that smart in our gene pool) and we would have been simultaneously amazed at his drive, ambition and success and aghast at what he has wrought.