September 22, 2014 (UPDATED 9/23/14) – “This case is bigger than one man,” says Lyn Ulbricht, mother of alleged Silk Road webmaster, Ross Ulbricht. “Laws will be made.”
To see Mrs. Ulbricht carrying the torch for the “Free Ross” effort is as heartbreaking as it is inspiring as she has the dual task of raising awareness to her son’s case and shaping his legacy. Grasping the full significance of this case doesn’t require a mom’s love or any understanding of hacking, however.
The Drug War is insidious. Disguised as law and order, it exacerbates violence and organized crime in place of mutual exchange of goods and services. Along came Silk Road, an online marketplace that made illicit trades much safer and easier. The internet is a much better place to do business than a war zone.
Decades of countless political efforts culminating in two states legalizing marijuana was completely overshadowed by just one apolitical act, the creation of Silk Road. To realign over a billion dollars of the drug trade didn’t just pose a threat to prohibition; it transcended it. For a while.
Then the FBI broke through the security apparatus of Silk Road, revealing its server location in Iceland. How the FBI tells it, they hit the jackpot like a lucky winner at the slots. But this sounds dubious to every other expert user of the type of network Silk Road was operating on. No amount of persistence in pulling the lever could possibly do what the FBI said it did.
More likely the FBI hacked into the site, tricking it with commanding codes that forcefully grabbed information that was otherwise private, a violation of the CFAA, Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, or even the 4th Amendment. Not your ordinary skill stop button pressing to return to the slot machine analogy.
What’s most historical about this case is that Ross Ulbricht’s seven separate criminal charges of (1) narcotics trafficking, (2) distribution of narcotics by means of the Internet, (3) conspiracy to traffic fraudulent identification documents, (4) participation in narcotics trafficking conspiracy, (5) continuing criminal enterprise, (6) computer hacking conspiracy, and finally (7) money laundering conspiracy are all being applied under statutes originally designed for the real world, not the world wide web.
The prosecution is counting on the stretchiness of legal terms to get its way. If a jury can be convinced that just one of these charges fits for Ross, then that will set precedent to criminalize more online activity previously untouched by the courts. For instance, courts have never recognized Bitcoin as currency and in fact, the IRS explicitly said it isn’t. The Treasury Department’s police force, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), ruled miners of Bitcoin aren’t required to register as money transmitters.
Creation of law out of the judiciary (thin air) that imprisons a non-violent man ought to perk the ears of all who champion the rule of law. And the fact that an alleged webmaster might be convicted for the actions of others goes against a widely held principle of self-ownership and responsibility. Wouldn’t a finding of guilt hinder the next Amazon or eBay startup?
Although the government has the power to put Ross in prison for a long time, time happens to be on the side of decentralized drugstores. Already the awesome power of open-sourced software is enabling new, advanced descendants of Silk Road in the deep web. The feds may have a rigged trial, but if an example is to be made, it will be of the feeble ideology which seeks to snuff out human ingenuity.
Sure a guilty verdict will give the government its precedent, but a much more significant one has already been set with the help of Ross’ alleged entrepreneurialism. Americans should follow closely this trial, which begins November 3, while keeping an eye out for more thinkers and doers chipping away at the dreadful status quo.
Liberty thrives on education and optimism. Let’s learn from Ross’s mother, Lyn Ulbricht, who has an all too clear sense of the desperate underhanded tactics of the state but chooses to push back ever more boldly. Then let’s pass that lesson forward. In this way, Ross will be free.