The Silk Road Founder’s Conviction

Ross Ulbricht, the mastermind behind the creation of the Silk Road website, was convicted of drug conspiracy and other charges for running the website that facilitated drug transactions through the use of bitcoin payments and anonymity of its users. The conviction carries a mandatory sentence of 20 years and the range goes up to life in prison. Kevin McCoy, "Jury Finds Ulbricht Guilty in Silk Road Case," USA Today, February 5, 2015, p. 1B.


 

The history of Silk Road began in 2009 when Mr. Ulbricht rented a home in Austin and raised hallucinogenic mushrooms. In order to sell the mushrooms, Mr. Ulbricht launched Silk Road in 2011, a site that created anonymity by using a computer routing system (Tor) that sent messages through Iceland and other countries as a way of thwarting detection of identity. The name, Silk Road, is apparently a take-off on the routes from the Far East to the West that were used to transport goods back and forth between and among countries in a circuitous fashion.

Users had to pay through bitcoin, an electronic currency that also precluded identification of users through traditional Internet payment methods. Silk Road took a commission on all transactions, and, at the time of the prosecution of Mr. Ulbricht, had amassed $18 million from the site from $182 million in drug sales.

Mr. Ulbricht was arrested in 2013 in a San Francisco Public Library where he was using his laptop. Undercover agents created a noise distraction that allowed them to seize Mr. Ulbricht’s laptop before he could log off. As a result, the FBI agents had full and complete access to the site and Mr. Ulbricht’s activities. The evidence was so overwhelming that the jury deliberated only about three hours before his conviction.

Mr. Ulbricht had maintained that he was not the founder and operator of the site nor was he Dread Pirate Roberts. Dread Pirate Roberts had arranged for a Hells Angels motorcycle club to execute site users who had threatened blackmail about the site’s activities and his identity. His lawyers maintained that the site was taken over by others and was launched only as an economics experiment. The lawyers argued that he was brought back to run the site when those who had taken over realized that the government had infiltrated the site. Evidence related to this defense was not admitted and will be the grounds for Mr. Ulbricht’s appeal.

The case is an example of the new type of crime that can be committed using the Internet. With the sophisticated technology, it is difficult for investigators to infiltrate these systems and more difficult to trace identities. However, prosecutors see the case as a major one that sends the message that the difficulties are not a barrier to investigations or prosecutions.

DISCUSSION STARTERS

  1. How do you think the agents were able to seize Mr. Ulbricht’s laptop in a public library?

  2. What will happen if the appellate court decides that the evidence about the takeover of the site by others should have been admitted?