Ross Ulbricht just received a lengthy sentence as punishment for crimes he committed against society. The terms of his sentence may be harsh, as he will I’ve out the rest of his life in a jail cell, contemplating what he had done. This is a fitting punishment for someone that extorted others, created pathways for people to sell drugs and took money from the entire operation, just like the mobsters of old. That’s not disturbing at all. Plenty of people on the planet do this kind of thing. It happens in every country and in every socio-economic class. What was interesting was why he did it, and what makes him so dangerous for doing it.
Ulbricbht ran the Silk Road, a complex system of servers that masks user’s profiles and accepts untraceable crypto-currencies as payment for goods and services. Truly a black market, where you could buy almost anything that you couldn’t openly buy in a public store. Interestingly, Ulbricbht didn’t sell any drugs. Maybe he might have sold some pot in college or something (he went to the University of Texas), but past that, he was’t involved in nefarious street crime. What he was involved with was much wider. But why would someone like Ulbricht get involved in Silk Road? One reason could be is that he thought he was’t doing anything wrong.
There is a lot of autonomy on the internet. Silk Road was nothing more than a secure website, much like eBay. The people that run eBay probably don’t claim responsibility for illegal activity that happens on their site. If you sell something and don’t pay sales tax on it (or charge sales tax), it is in violation of state and national tax laws. We have taxes to build roads, pay for social services and other things. Not paying of things like that would be wrong. Yet eBay does not enforce it, and maybe because they don’t care. They send a statement, which I am sure is meant to be used when filing taxes, but no one I personally know has used it come tax day.
It’s not a major issue when it is small, but it speaks to a darker place. What if Ulbricbht didn’t think he was doing anything wrong? What if he thought he was just running a website, and knowing what was happening on the site was enough for him to come up with a corny screen handle and protect his physical location, but that was about it? When people commit crimes, and know those crimes are wrong, and continue to do the crimes, they prove how dangerous they are. Ulbricbht was remorseful in court, but he was obviously educated enough to understand that what he was doing was wrong when he was doing it, meriting the full force of justice. He did expose a problem that is hardly talked about in the technology industry, white collar crime.
As with the eBay example and Ulbricht, crime are being committed by tech firms that find a shaky law, spend the appropriate amount of mental capital to solve a problem, make as much money as they can before they are exposed. Once caught, punishment is minimal, just like stock traders that defraud ordinary investors out of millions. You hardly hear of these people going to jail for life, much less 10 years. Often, these criminals know of their crimes, yet weight risk against reward, and wait until they get out of minimum security to spend their hidden wealth. Tech companies that develop a system or service that exploits a loophole, draws funding and then divests to another place to avoid having funds repossessed are no different. Creating products that break laws are also no different in that way.
So, are the people that run these companies crooks? Take Uber for instance. The ride share service is clearly illegal, but they continue to operate. Drivers that make money for driving people around (taxis or private hire cars) are required to hold independent contractor licenses in order to conduct business. A recent KRON article pointed out the fact that UBER does not enforce this. They do not even release driver information to the San Francisco governing bodies that could enforce it for them. Knowingly running an operation that allows this is criminal. They are white collar criminals.
And maybe, because they are well-to-do, educated men, they don’t believe they are doing anything criminal, even if they do accept the fact that they are doing something wrong. I would guess that most people in the United States would judge a black kid standing on a street corner with his friends before they would judge a successful businessman. Yet, a young man selling $20 bags of pot would hardly steal millions in taxes from the government. For wealthy businessmen, this happens far too much. If people working in or supporting the tech world thought of themselves as above the law because their street corner was the internet, then they might be apt to thumb their noses at the law, just like the kids on the corners do.
If the drones in the tech industry think it’s ok to break the law, then it is the government’s job to punish them, just as they did Ulbricht. Being form a socio-economic class that has been proven to not provide the tools to escape the doldrums of life is one thing, and being from a class where you are educated is another. The disregard for simple laws will prove to be the downfall of these companies.