This book tells the story of the kinds of people I despise: libertarians who idolize Ayn Rand and Walter White, and cops who think they are cowboys. American Kingpin: Catching the Billion-Dollar Baron of the Dark Web is a bananas story. It’s fascinating, disturbing and funny in the the way that you just have to laugh at the absurdity or rage at the horseshit. There are only a couple of people in this story I didn’t want to slap. I don’t think Nick Bilton is a particularly skillful author, but he doesn’t ruin it either. The sheer lunacy of the true events and the people involved make it a page turner despite the author’s authoring.
Ross Ulbricht was born in my hometown of Austin, Texas and raised in the affluent suburb Westlake Hills. He grew up with privilege, money, education and a love of drugs and libertarianism. He flunked out of his graduate program in advanced physics because he was spending more time debating libertarian politics than going to class. His family expected great things from him and he wasn’t living up to his potential. His grand libertarian idea was to build an anonymous website where people could buy and sell whatever they wanted without government oversight or intervention – mostly drugs, but also guns, poisons, explosive materials, body parts, etc. They drew the line at murder for hire and child porn. The idea of the Silk Road site was exactly the kind of bushwa fantasy a rich white suburban kid who had never faced real consequences would dream up.
It is impressive that a guy with no computer science background could create a dark web site at all. I recently created a website with Squarespace and I’m still struggling to get it to do what I want it to do. Ross asked only one person who knew him in real life for help. The Silk Road grew quickly, especially after an article by Adrian Chen on Gawker. A community quickly grew up around the site and despite the anonymity, Ross developed friendships and found people to help with the site. I know from my own experience on Pajiba and Cannonball Read that those online friendships can be intense and very real. I also know that not everyone on the internet is who they say they are and will take advantage of the relationships they build.
Despite the impressiveness of his achievement, he frequently struggled to keep the site operational and secure. You will be shocked, I’m sure, to hear that a few of his sellers scammed customers, hackers held the site hostage for ransom, and the site dedicated to personal freedom was a constant source of stress and frustration for Ulbricht. He learned as he went, as a result he made mistakes that eventually led to his arrest and provided the evidence against him. He was a big fan of Walter White, but he should have taken more lessons from Stringer Bell. I won’t list all the ways in which he was dumb, in case you are not familiar with the story. I will say, he was not as smart as he thought he was.
The actual law enforcement involved in this story were strewn across several federal agencies. It reminded me of the three blind men trying to describe an elephant, except here the men blindfolded themselves and willfully refused to share information until the very end. Jealousy and petty bickering kept the different agencies from cooperating more than nominally for almost 2 years. A DEA agent and a Secret Service agent were able to steal money from the site long before the many agencies were able to communicate with each other long enough to identify and find Ross Ulbricht. An IRS investigator identified Ulbricht early on from a Google search, but kept it to himself because the other agents were so territorial with their information. A Google search, which wasn’t shared for weeks because the other agents were being assholes.
While I do think controlled substance laws and enforcement is a nightmare and I do want the government to stay out of a lot decisions they seem to think they should be able to legislate (my reproductive health for one), libertarianism is both nonsense and drivel. Free markets are great if you have resources and are not part of a marginalized community, if everyone agrees to behave themselves and agrees what “rational” behavior entails. There is a reason that people started demanding government regulation – cleaner air, cleaner water, safer working conditions, safer products, better working hours.
I love true crime – non-murder edition. Most true crime podcasts center on murder and I get overwhelmed by that particular kind of misery quickly. I generally listen to This is Criminal and Swindled, but sometimes I read through other podcasts to find the ones without death and dismemberment. On one of those occasions, I cam across an Australian podcast, Casefiles. The host did a three part series on Ross Ulbricht and his Dark Web website, Silk Road. He relied heavily on Bilton’s American Kingpin and Eileen Ormsby’s book, Silk Road. It was a great series of episodes and frankly I would recommend it over this book. Not that this book is bad, just that the Casefiles episodes are better.