Emerging Technology

BEST OF THE WEB: This online pirate is the best entrepreneur you’ve never heard of

Patrick Stafford /

The internet has revolutionised education and communication, but it has also enabled piracy and countless new ways to conduct criminal activity.

In a new profile over at Forbes, the publication delves into one of the internet’s darkest corners – the Silk Road marketplace – and its founder, Dread Pirate Roberts.

Naturally, he doesn’t reveal his real name. Nor does he use traditional communication. In fact, as the piece begins, the publication points out he doesn’t use instant messaging services, phones or even Skype.

Meeting in person is “out of the question”, he said. “I don’t meet in person even with my closes advisors”. Dread Pirate Roberts is so afraid of being contacted, that when the publication asks for his name and nationality, he disappears 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 secrecy is warranted. Silk Road is one of the internet’s biggest hubs for illegal drugs, including heroin and methamphetamines, along with various other illegal materials.

And it’s incredibly lucrative.

According to the publication, Silk Road is generating $1.2 million every month, with revenue hitting as high as between $30-45 million a year. But like any marketplace, Silk Road is feeling some pressure, and not necessarily from the Feds – but from his competition.

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.

Atlantis went so far as to put a video ad on YouTube. It generated over 100,000 hits before it was taken down, but the damage was done.

The second major part of this online marketplace is the use of the digital currency Bitcoin, which has allowed users to trade illegal materials without having a traceable currency.

In fact, Roberts says Bitcoin has been so essential to Silk Road that it enabled its very creation – but it also brought him to the state.

He credits Silk Road’s creation to another, even more secretive entrepreneur whom he declined to tell me anything about and who may have used the “Dread Pirate Roberts” nom de guerre before it was assumed by the person I interviewed.

The current Roberts discovered the site shortly after its creation in early 2011. Around that time, he says, he found a security flaw in the “wallet” software that stored Silk Road’s funds.

One talented pirate. While not a traditional business story, this is nevertheless one worth reading – it’s the biggest online empire you’ve never heard of.

Spreading the internet by balloon

Google does a lot of crazy stuff, but attempting to bring internet to the world’s remote areas by balloon is perhaps one of the craziest.

Yet, as Wired shows in this new feature, the craziness of the idea hasn’t stopped it. Google is “obsessed” with fixing the broadband problem, it says, using the balloon program it has affectionately titled “Project Loon”.

The leader of the project, Rich DeVaul, tells Wired the company has spent a lot of time perfecting the plan. There have been plenty of failures, including chasing balloons to make sure they don’t float off forever.

But this isn’t just philanthropic. As the piece describes, Google stands to make a lot of money.

It seems crazy—nuttier than the Ashtar Command Crew—to imagine as many people getting Internet via balloons as by fiber, copper wire, or cell carrier. But something unexpected happened when the news of Project Loon broke:

There was very little of the mocking or criticism you might expect from a plan so daft that its name was chosen in part to acknowledge its lunacy. Instead, the response was almost universally upbeat.

Cassidy says he got 850 emails the Monday after the announcement, and more than 100 (he counted) of the authors described the project using the word inspiring. Maybe Project Loon isn’t so looney after all.

The internet, via balloon – coming to a sky near you.

Making Google Glass fashionable

Although Google Glass has been making the rounds in the tech scene during the past several months, there’s still one big problem – people feel silly while wearing them.

Over at The New York Times, a new piece delves into how exactly that problem can be solved. With tech and fashion colliding with smartwatches and other gadgets, it seems like a good problem to fix, and now’s a good time to fix it.

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Patrick Stafford

Patrick Stafford is a freelance journalist and a former deputy editor of SmartCompany.

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