I had a quick phone conversation with Ross Ulbricht the other day. I expressed my support and passed on the support of thousands of others. His voice was clear, with a pretty tenor intonation. He thanked me for the public support I’ve given him. We exchanged a few other thoughts.
It was a deeply moving moment for me.
It can be easy to de-humanize a public figure like Ross, especially given that he has been so demonized by the government as a dangerous drug kingpin who hires hitmen against his enemies. He has never even been allowed to speak to the public in any way. He has not really been given a fair chance to respond to the claims made about him. As a result, he has been presented to us as a hateful archetype.
But the voice I heard on the other end was that of a real human being. He could be your brother, your son, your cousin. He is an innovator, a sincere idealist. He is now trapped by a vindictive government, used as a tool in a propaganda war. He is caged, and pointlessly so. It’s a tragedy, a deeply human one.
I’ve followed the case of Silk Road closely for years. It is a fascinating episode in the struggle toward a freer world. After a half century of a violent, costly, and unwinnable drug war, one that has massively empowered governments and drug lords, and led to mass incarcerations around the world, the Silk Road represented actual progress.
It was a peer-to-peer platform that permits exchange of goods and service without government intervention. It might be called the first truly free market of the 21st century. Ross set it up as a real-time experiment. What would happen if there really were a free market? How would it work?
The results far exceeded his expectations. It actually began the process of de-monopolizing narcotic markets, connecting buyers and sellers directly. It also brought producer accountability to a market that desperately needs it. The consumer feedback features of the site were extremely useful, even essential. After half a century of pointless violence, Ross’s innovation actually showed us a new way.
Through this technology, producers of narcotics no longer had to crawl to scary and violent drugs to find a market for their goods. Consumers no longer had to skulk around in scary neighborhoods and take inordinate risks with their lives.
And here is an incredible irony. From what I could tell from looking at the Silk Road, the main product that was being sold was actually marijuana. In the last few years, its possession and use has been dramatically liberalized all around the country.
What good did caging him do for the world? Another version of Silk Road went online soon after his arrest. When that was taken down, another popped up within days. Beyond that, there are now dozens of other narcotics markets on the darknet, all of them more robust and less vulnerable to takedown than the original Silk Road.
Ross’s arrest did absolutely nothing to curb online drug markets. If anything it was the opposite: the publicity of the case enticed countless new entrepreneurs to build new platforms.
And ask yourself: who celebrated Ross’s arrest the most? Surely it was the drug lords. They are business people. They want the market cornered. They want to crush all competition, and they do, violently. A P2P technology that permits disintermediation in this market is the worst possible threat to their power.
All of this would be true even without the claims that Ross attempted to hire a hitman against those who threatened to expose his identity and those of the Silk Road’s customers. Please note several facts about these claims. There was never a victim found for these supposed hit jobs.
Also, these claims were made to the press repeatedly but they were not part of the government’s case, and this is surely for a reason. But what of the transcripts that seem to show that the Dread Pirate Roberts made such a contract? We do not know it was Ross and we do not know the context or the deeper story.
I do not trust the evidence and I do not trust any story that bureaucrats feed to the press but do not submit to a fair trial. It struck me at the time that these stories and the spin around them seem constructed to dupe naive libertarians into pulling back from their support for Ross’s case.
As you know, Ross was convicted on all counts, even though all he really did is precisely what he admitted to doing: he founded a website for P2P exchange. His prosecution sets a very dangerous precedent for all website builders. There will be an appeal, and my highest hope is the decision of the jury will be reversed. Ross needs to be free. He is a threat to no one. No justice is served by keeping him locked up.
The drug war itself is unjust. So is the prison system. So is the court system. Ross is a victim of all three. Please keep him in your thoughts and prayers.