Boss of infamous Silk Road drug site breaks silence

by Toby Manhire / 21 August, 2013
The "Dread Pirate Roberts", facing threats to his illicit site's dominance, gives interview to Forbes.
The Silk Road site, and an unofficial fans' T-shirt

The new Forbes boasts a remarkable and rare interview - with the Dread Pirate Roberts.

Not the character from novel-turned-movie The Princess Bride, but the shadowy figure who runs the illicit online drugs market “Silk Road” and has adopted the nom de guerre.

There is probably a film in his story, too, however.

Andy Greenberg describes how he communicated with the boss of the “deep web” site, a heavily secretive kind of TradeMe for illegal drugs, using the digital currency Bitcoin.

Forget phones or Skype. At one point during our eight-month preinterview courtship, I offer to meet him at an undisclosed location outside the United States. “Meeting in person is out of the question,” he says. “I don’t meet in person even with my closest advisors.” When I ask for his name and nationality, he’s so spooked that he refuses to answer any other questions and we lose contact for a month.

All my communications with Roberts are routed exclusively through the messaging system and forums of the website he owns and manages, the Silk Road. Accessing the site requires running the anonymity software Tor, which encrypts Web traffic and triple-bounces it among thousands of computers around the world. Like a long, blindfolded ride in the back of some guerrilla leader’s van, Tor is designed to prevent me–and anyone else–from tracking the location of Silk Road’s servers or the Dread Pirate Roberts himself. “The highest levels of government are hunting me,” says Roberts. “I can’t take any chances.”

Roberts professes a philosophical purpose beyond black-market digital drug dealing.

He sees himself not just as an enabler of street-corner pushers but also as a radical libertarian revolutionary carving out an anarchic digital space beyond the reach of the taxation and regulatory powers of the state–Julian Assange with a hypodermic needle. “We can’t stay silent forever. We have an important message, and the time is ripe for the world to hear it,” says Roberts. “What we’re doing isn’t about scoring drugs or ‘sticking it to the man.’ It’s about standing up for our rights as human beings and refusing to submit when we’ve done no wrong.”

“Silk Road is a vehicle for that message,” he writes to me from somewhere in the Internet’s encrypted void. “All else is secondary.”

Greenberg notes that “Roberts’ lofty words on individual liberties provide a convenient veneer to justify his profitable business selling illegal, dangerous and addictive substances”. His immediate motivation for speaking publicly may be more basic: fending off competitors.

As with physical drug dealing, a turf war has emerged. Competitors, namely a newly launched site called Atlantis with a real marketing budget and a CEO with far less regard for his privacy, are stealing Roberts’ spotlight.

Roberts had not been completely silent before speaking to Forbes. He has been active boosting his own profile on his site's forums, where he's posted “lofty manifestos about Silk Road’s libertarian political ideals and love letters to his faithful users and vendors”, explains Greenberg.

“He’s even hosted a Dread Pirate Roberts Book Club where he moderated discussions on authors from the Austrian school of free market economics.”

If Roberts is to be believed, it is quite an empire he is defending.

He tells Greenberg:

As far as my monetary net worth is concerned, the future value of Silk Road as an organization dwarfs its and my liquid assets. … I wouldn’t sell out for less than 10 figures, maybe 11,” he writes with a dash of vainglory. “At some point you’re going to have to put Dread Pirate Roberts on that list you all keep over at Forbes. ;)

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