Sentencing of Ross Ulbricht is not the end of the Silk Road Saga

Ross Ulbricht, the mercurial founder of ‘Silk Road’, what was once the biggest internet trading site for illicit drugs was sentenced to life imprisonment last week. The 31 year old Texan physics graduate rose to notoriety on the back of a site on the hidden “dark web” that became a trading mart for drugs and other illicit products. Prosecutors claimed that more than $200m worth of drugs had been sold.

The website extended the reach of illicit drug markets into potentially every home with an internet connection. Customers described a distribution system of extraordinary efficiency. Orders for small amounts of cocaine could be placed with next day delivery in markets across the US and Europe. Reviews and recommendations posted online removed much of the risk in a rugged and sometimes dangerous market. The spectre raised of drug dealers reaching into everybody’s living room had to be balanced against the resulting transformation of drug markets. As the defence team argued – the dark web effectively removed the violence from the drug scene. Ordering a batch of ecstasy pills was no more difficult than ordering a pizza – and no more dangerous.

For policy makers this raises again the question of ultimate objectives, and what they actually seek to achieve? Does the imposition of the law trump the quest for public safety? Should law enforcement agencies go after internet trading sights on a point of principle even when they remove the violence from the drug markets? Katherine Forrest, the sentencing judge was very clear about sticking to her brief and setting an example. “The stated purpose [of the Silk Road] was to be beyond the law. In the world you created over time, democracy didn’t exist. You were captain of the ship, the Dread Pirate Roberts… Silk Road’s birth and presence asserted that its… creator was better than the laws of this country. This is deeply troubling, terribly misguided, and very dangerous.”

Passing a 20 year sentence without parole she asserted the power of the law, but given the vibrancy of drug markets, in cyber space and on street corners, it is hard to see this as anything more than a symbolic gesture. For legal theorists and large sections of the internet community it has also raised big questions about the powers of the state and freedom of the web that will continue to rumble for years to come. Supporters of Ulbricht have asked in what way the harm he has done justifies the severity of the sentence. Up until his arrest two years ago Ulbricht lived in accommodation indistinguishable from other techies and had not, it seems, gained materially from his dealing.

This material modesty forms an interesting contrast to two of the police officers investigating the case. In March of 2015 the former DEA agent Carl Mark Force was charged with wire fraud, theft of government property, and money laundering. It is alleged that he sold information about the investigation and that he stole over $500,000 in bitcoins, the digital cryptocurrency, for himself during the federal investigation into Silk Road. A secret service agent, Shaun Bridges, was also arrested on suspicion of stealing US$800,000 worth of bitcoins. As the Washington Post commented when reporting the story “It’s hard to miss the irony in the Silk Road investigators themselves becoming the target of an investigation. But the complaint also underscores how difficult it can be for the government to stay abreast of digital criminal activity at a time when technology has gotten so complex.”

Both defendants have been held in custody pending trial.

Charges against Ulbricht

  1. Count One: Distributing OR aiding and abetting the distribution of narcotics. Aiding and abetting means knowingly assisting in the commission of a crime, even if he didn’t actually commit the crime. Distribution requires a concrete involvement in the transfer of drugs.
  2. Count Two: The distribution of controlled substances intentionally accomplished by means of the Internet.
  3. Count Three: Conspiracy with others to violate narcotics laws. A conspiracy exists if two or more persons, in any manner (whether they verbally agree or not) “come to a common understanding to violate the law.”
  4. Count Four: Engagement in a continuing criminal enterprise (kingpin charge). This requires that the defendant committed a series of federal narcotics offenses with five or more people whom he organized supervised, managed and from whom he received substantial profit. as you can’t be an organizer AND just an aider or abettor. In Count Five: Conspiring with others to commit OR aid and abet computer hacking.
  5. Count Six: Conspiring with others to traffic in fraudulent identification documents.
  6. Count Seven: Conspiring to commit money laundering.