On May 29, Ross Ulbricht was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison for having created and operated the Silk Road online marketplace. The Silk Road was a revolutionary website because it was a truly free market, where people could buy and sell almost anything, including illicit drugs, false identification documents and even books; however, there was a prohibition on anything that was meant to harm innocent people.
Before his sentencing, Ulbicht told the court, “I’ve changed. I’m not the man I was when I created Silk Road. I’m a little wiser, a little more mature, and much more humble.” Adding, “I wanted to empower people to make choices in their lives…to have privacy and anonymity,” Ulbricht told the judge. “I’m not a sociopathic person trying to express some inner badness.” Additionally, nearly one hundred letters were sent to Judge Katherine Forrest urging her to give a lenient sentence. Ulbricht’s letter to Judge Forrest asked her to “leave me my old age.”
She was not swayed, telling Ulbricht, “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.” Adding, “There is good in you, Mr. Ulbricht. There is also bad. And what you did with the Silk Road was terribly destructive… It was a carefully planned life’s work. It was your opus. You wanted it to be your legacy. And it is.”
Being a hero who made the black market safer is not a bad legacy. However, Ulbricht’s conviction and life sentence serve to set a dangerous precedent! Before the trial even began Joshua Dratel, Ulbricht’s lawyer, said the case represents “an effort by the government to expand the concepts of vicarious liability over the internet – i.e. what is the responsibility of a website operator for the uses to which people put products sold on that site? – and to demonise certain very legitimate means of personal privacy protection, such as [the anonymsing software] Tor and Bitcoin.”
There are three simple facts of this case that help explain the dangerous precedent. Ross Ulbricht created a website. People used the website to sell things that other people wanted to buy. Ross Ulbricht goes to jail for life.
When Philip Markoff arranged meetings with people through Craigslist and then killed them; the creator of the site wasn’t held liable. When people have been arrested attempting to hire prostitutes through various online classified sites, the owner of the website is not charged with being a pimp. The same rationale should apply to Ross Ulbricht, whose family has vowed to appeal the conviction and sentence. Hopefully, the next court to hear the case, realizes the dangerous precedent set by the judge and jury in the initial case, and kills the precedent!