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American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road

American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road

Nick Bilton


The Silk Road occupies an interesting place in the history of the internet. To many it is the "dark web", the place where people can buy contraband with cryptocurrency. (Indeed, this is basically the only real-world use case for cryptocurrencies so far.)

It's a strange tale of someone who didn't seek to create the world's dark marketplace, but once he had was sucked-in to a vortex of ever-expanding crusade to support "freedom", of that particularly libertarian kind in which no harms are admitted and no constraints regarded as valid. Ross Ulbricht also seems curiously divorced from the success of his creation, in the sense that he never spent any of the millions he made, and never seems to have much intention of doing. It's a fascinating to ask what would have happened to him if he'd walked away (as he told his girlfriend he had) in the relatively early years.

There are some questions left largely unanswered, though. Does having a safe, legal, marketplace for drugs reduce harms, by removing the criminals and violence? It's hard to say, as the Silk Road never really removed the criminals from the equation. Is a recommender system sufficient to regulate a marketplace for contraband? Is the middleman as guilty as the seller – or the buyer? Taking down the Silk Road didn't end the dark web, and indeed it's now a fragmented and dynamic place that's more difficult for both law enforcement and consumers to navigate. Another thing Ulbricht never seems to have foreseen.

4/5. Finished 18 February 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

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