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End of the Silk Road

Ross Ulbricht, also know as the Dread Pirate Roberts via his dark web marketplace Silk Road, was sentenced to life in prison today.

It’s hard to feel particularly sympathetic about someone who paid for the murder of six people, even if most of ‘murders’ were never actually perpetrated (1 was faked by law enforcement, 5 appeared to be a scam targeting Ulbricht).

But it gets more intriguing that Secret Service and Drug Enforcement Administration agents allegedly stole millions of dollars from Silk Road, and may have also engaged in blackmail.

It’s also notable that the maximum sentence, harsher than even the prosecution were requesting, was explicitly done to send a message to anyone else contemplating running a ‘Dark Web’ site.

Much of the Silk Road case appeared to focus on the role Silk Road played in the sale and distribution of a huge variety of drugs, and whether it made the drug trade safer for buyers or resulted in more widespread drug use and fatalities.

But essentially Silk Road isn’t purely about drugs, or any other specific product. It’s about the fact that it was possible to set up a relatively hard to track and anonymous Dark Web marketplace which took years for law enforcement to finally catch out. And numerous similar sites have since appeared, including Silk Road 2, Evolution and Agora.

If it wasn’t for the decision to pay to murder up to 6 people, it would be easy to draw parallels with the deterrent punishments handed out to hackers. Although he’s probably the antithesis of the civic awareness and activism undertaken by Aaron Swartz, a disproportionate sentence was threatened in that case, leading to Swartz suicide.

The creation of a Dark Web marketplace, even with the motive of accruing a fortune in Bitcoin, is not an immoral decision, but paying for multiple people to be killed certainly is. And it’s that point which makes it hard to have sympathy of Ulbricht, or see popular support for an appeal against a sentence which keeps him locked up for life.