Delayed since November, the trial of Ross Ulbricht, the former Eagle Scout who stands accused of running the "dark Web" site Silk Road, is scheduled to begin on January 5, 2015.
You remember Silk Road, right, which seemed like something out of a William Gibson or Neal Stephenson novel? Operated by the pseudonymous "Dread Pirate Roberts," it was the "Amazon.com for drugs" and other illegal substances and activities, a Bitcoin-driven den of thieves, murderers, and worse. Or maybe not; read Brian Doherty's recent Reason mag feature on it.
Whatever you think about all that, Ulbricht's trial is about more than the feds shutting down a site that allowed people to buy and sell drugs. It intersects with all sorts of issues related to state surveillance, burden of proof, and whether ISPs and marketplace sites can be held liable for the actions of users. Watch the interview above with Ulbricht's mother, Lynn, who is a powerful explicator of the larger issues at stake in this case. Full disclosure: I've given $100 to Ulbricht's defense fund because I want to see a full airing of those issues. We live in an age where government surveillance is, in my opinion, largely out of control and unchecked. For all the good they do, federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies such as the FBI, the CIA, and the NSA have proven track records of vastly exceeding the scope of their powers and the executive branch often seems to be egging them on. Let's get as much of this out in the open as we possibly can.
For more information on the case and Ulbricht, go to Free Ross Ulbricht. From its pages:
By its own admission, the FBI has no documentation of how they found the Silk Road server, which comprises the bulk of their evidence. Without forensic documentation there is no guarantee that the evidence is valid or even that it wasn't fabricated. The explanation of how the FBI found the server has been widely criticized by technical and security experts, one calling it "inconsistent with reality"; another "impossible"; and another a lie and gibberish.
Ross has been arraigned in New York on a superseding indictment. He is pleading not guilty to all charges: narcotics trafficking; computer hacking; money laundering; engaging in a criminal enterprise; and conspiracy to traffic in fraudulent IDs. Ross' family and friends believe he is falsely accused and innocent of the charges.
The case is scheduled to be tried beginning January 5, 2015 in Judge Katherine Forrest's courtroom, #15A, Daniel Patrick Moynihan
Courthouse, 500 Pearl St., New York, NY.
Although initially alleged to have planned six murders, Ross was never indicted in New York for any.
That last point is kind of amazing, since you'd think alleged hits would play a starring role in the federal prosecution. Certainly, it's the murder-for-hire charges that have driven the press attention, from The New York Times Magazine's blockbuster story on the case from January 2014 ("Eagle Scout. Idealist. Drug Trafficker?") to stories about the upcoming trial. Consider this lede from a Bloomberg news piece:
Ross Ulbricht, the alleged mastermind of the $1.2 billion online "black-market bazaar" known as Silk Road, attempted to arrange the murders of at least six people including a worker he believed had stolen $350,000 in bitcoins from him, the U.S. said.
While the murder-for-hire plots aren't part of the government's indictment of Ulbricht, federal prosecutors in New York are seeking to use them as evidence against him at his trial set to begin Jan. 5. The alleged schemes support the government's argument that Ulbricht conspired to protect the criminal enterprise, prosecutors said yesterday in a court filing.
So the feds want people to know that Ulbricht is a deranged would-be murderer as his trial begins. They just don't want to, you know, substantiate the charges. It's a classic legal ploy and it was the murder charges more than anything else that kept Ulbricht behind bars while awaiting trial.