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How the Silk Road founder justified letting people sell kidneys and cyanide on the service

Ross Ulbricht, right, is shown in court as the prosecution rests its criminal case against him in New York, Feb. 4, 2015.
Ross Ulbricht, right, is shown in court as the prosecution rests its criminal case against him in New York, Feb. 4, 2015.

Vanity Fair writer Nick Bilton's new book chronicles the life of Ross Ulbricht, who in 2011 at age 26 launched the Silk Road, a site where anyone could anonymously buy or sell "drugs, hacking software, forged passports, counterfeit cash, guns, grenades, and poisons." Under the pseudonym "Dread Pirate Roberts," Ulbricht's business raked in $1.2 billion in sales, with the Feds on the hunt.

Below is an excerpt of "American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road."

It had been difficult hiding the truth. Friends in the real world would say things to him like "Why don't you try this business idea or work on that app?" to which Ross would simply say, "Good idea, dude. I'll think about it." But, as he told his employees on the site, he just wanted to "scream at them, 'Because I'm running a goddam multi-million dollar criminal enterprise!!!!'"

Lying came at a price. To separate those two worlds, and to justify the actions he had to make in each—telling stories to his family and friends in one and making resolute decisions with vast repercussions in the other—the man in the pink and green checkered shirt had become incredibly adept at separating the life of Ross Ulbricht from that of the Dread Pirate Roberts.

As Ross he would go on these walkabouts with his friends (or alone), and the biggest decisions he had to make each day were where the adventure would begin and what he would eat for lunch. When he stepped into the role of the Dread Pirate Roberts, he hid Ross away, and DPR reveled in the power that came with dictating the rules of a world in which hundreds of thousands of people roamed. He was the one who decided who got to stay on his island and what they could do and could not do while they were there. And DPR, while seemingly the same person as the sweet Ross his mother had raised, was able to make tough decisions that a younger self would have cowered away from.

This had happened just two weeks earlier, when DPR had been faced with a query on the site that no one had ever posed to Ross in his debate clubs back at Penn State.

"Question for you," one of his employees had asked at the time. "Do we allow selling kidneys and livers?"

Well, there's something Ross had never imagined people might want to hawk on the Silk Road. "Is it listed?" he replied. "Or someone wants to sell?"

The employee then forwarded an e-mail that had come into the Silk Road's support page from someone who said they wanted to sell kidneys, livers, and other body parts; according to the anonymous sender, the sales of these internal organs would "all be consensual" between the buyers and sellers.

On the black market a person's kidney could sell for more than $260,000 (though a kidney from a Chinese man or woman would only go for $60,000), and a good liver was $150,000. Almost every part of a person's body was for sale, and for a hefty profit. Bone marrow, for example, sold for as much as $23,000 a gram (compared with $60 a gram for cocaine.) A family who couldn't get that for their dying son in the broken U.S. healthcare system would happily pay for it on the Dark Web.

"Yes, if the source consents then it is ok," DPR wrote, then noted to his employee that "morals are easy when you understand the non-aggression principle," citing the same libertarian argument he had used so many times in his debates at Penn State. Anything goes in a free market, the principle states, as long as you're not violent toward anyone else without cause. (If someone tries to harm you, then you have every right to defend yourself and your personal property, Dread explained. An eye for an eye was the way of the libertarian world.) Selling a liver or a spleen on a Web site was entirely moral and just, he noted.

In addition to allowing organs on the site, the Dread Pirate Roberts had also recently approved the sale of poisons on the Silk Road.

"So uhh we have a vendor selling cyanide," wrote another of Dread's employees. "Not sure where we stand on this, he's not listing it as a poison, but its only the most well-known assassination and suicide poison out there." The employee followed up with "lol."

DPR asked for a link to the sales page. The listing pointed out that while cyanide could be used to kill yourself (in about seven to nine seconds)—the person selling the acid had noted that with each order they were including a free copy of the e-book The Final Exit, which was a how-to guide for suicides. Cyanide did also have some legitimate uses, the seller pointed out, like cleaning gold and silver, and was "the perfect medicine to treat leprosy."

After a couple of minutes deliberating, DPR said to the employee, "I think we'll allow it." And then he reiterated the site's mantra: "It's a substance, and we want to err on the side of not restricting things."

The Silk Road, after all, was just the platform—no different from Facebook or Twitter or eBay—on which users communicated and exchanged ideas and currency. So who was DPR to err on the side of anything but yes? It wasn't as if Twitter dictated what kind of opinions people could and could not write in the little box at the top of the screen. If you wanted to spew brilliance or idiocy in 140 characters, then so be it. It was your God-given right to say what you wanted on the Internet, in the same way it was your God-given right to buy or sell whatever you wanted and put it in your body—if you chose.

….

"Absolutely," the employee replied in agreement. "This is the black market after all :)"

"It is," Ross responded, "and we are bringing order and civility to it."

While these decisions were still difficult for Ross to make, the line where Ross ended and DPR began was beginning to blur.

And just like other ambitious CEOs who ran other start-ups around San Francisco, he was unable to see how a single decision, made from behind a computer, could trickle down and affect an untold number of real, living human beings.

Excerpted from American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road by Nick Bilton, in agreement with Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Nick Bilton, 2017.