Drug War

Silk Road: Ross Ulbricht's Loss is a Loss for Justice, Liberty, Safety, and Peace

The operation Ulbricht was found guilty of managing was one guaranteed to save lives, reduce real crime, and preserve liberty.

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As I reported earlier today, Ross Ulbricht was found guilty of all seven counts related to running the Silk Road website.

The government baldly asserted—and the judge allowed the grossly prejudicial speculations to be aired in court—that Ulbricht was also involved in some (fantasized, un-carried-out) attempts to hire people to murder others threatening to reveal some of Silk Road's secrets. (I find randomly discussing the case in both real life and online that this water-muddying was remarkably successful. Lots of people vaguely familiar with the case are sure he was tried and convicted for these accused murders-for-hire.)

Yet the crimes the government actually chose to indict, try, and convict Ulbricht for—with a possible sentence of 30 to life—were all about allegedly facilitating the sales of things the government has decided was illegal (drugs, certain computer tools, "fake I.D.s", or using means to preserve privacy and anonymity in the flow of money and identity of the money owners). The charges were:

narcotics trafficking; distribution of narcotics by means of the Internet; narcotics trafficking conspiracy; continuing criminal enterprise; conspiracy to aid and abet computer hacking; conspiracy to traffic in fraudulent identity documents; and money laundering conspiracy.

And its also worth considering, though the government and the jury did not seem to think it mattered, that he didn't do any of those things, but merely helped manage a website that allowed people to do them. As his legal team and his supporters have pointed out, that's a somewhat dangerous legal precedent for the Internet age in which sites that facilitate communication and commerce are incredibly valuable and will become more so.

Ulbricht wrote, when discussing his hopes for the future in an old LinkedIn page, that he hoped "to use economic theory as a means to abolish the use of coercion and aggression amongst mankind." He wanted to make, he wrote, "an economic simulation to give people a firsthand experience of what it would be like to live in a world without the systemic use of force." 

And that's what he  did, if the government's accusations are correct, and that's what his life has been destroyed for: created a site that helped bring more intelligence, more freedom, more consumer awareness, more harm reduction (because of the intelligent and communicative community that arose around the site, helping educate you about safe and sensible use, mixing, and sources of drugs), and more peace to the sometimes dangerous process of drug buying. That act can be dangerous both because of the quality of sellers and product, and because of the occasional physical danger presented by the people or situations that real-life drug deals sometimes create.

In creating this safer, better, smarter marketplace via eliminating the systemic use of force, Ulbricht attracted the dire attentions of the biggest such systemic user of force in the world: the U.S. government.

If you delve into the world of Silk Road forums and fans, as I did in researching my December Reason feature, talk to some of its users, study the academic work on it, you realize Silk Road was a place that helped eliminate fear, uncertainty and danger; that made quality and customer satisfaction a more powerful incentive to succeed in drug dealing than violent defense of turf or money.

Even while it still allowed, like everything in life, the occasional rip-off, it made drug buying and selling in every way better, safer, more reliable, more peaceful.

Thus, the government's multi-year, incredibly expensive attempt to take down the site and prosecute Ulbricht were bad for liberty, bad for markets, bad for the safety of those who choose to use substances the government has declared forbidden, and bad for America.

The edifice of foolishness and lies that the government has built with its fabulously expensive and fabulously destructive war on drugs is crumbling around us, with marijuana, its firmest and most massive base, more and more recognized as either medicine or a perfectly acceptable personal choice. The logic that is bringing down marijuana prohibition should apply to other drugs eventually, and the politics of a large-scale war on the far-less-prevalent other drugs should become unsustainable within the next few decades or sooner merely on a cost-benefit analysis. There likely isn't enough business or money to be made for the government and its contractors and agents and imprisoners in continuing to wage a large-scale war on the other, less widely used drugs. The political logic, both explicit and implicit, that keeps the war going ought not be able to survive losing pot as a target.

The government can, and will, continue to spend enormous amounts of our money and its employees' time destroying people's lives for trying to help people the way Silk Road tried to help people. But it will never win the war. It will commit crimes against the person, the property, and the privacy of its citizens in doing so. It will practice, in issues I hope Ulbricht's lawyer Josh Dratel succeeds in airing more thoroughly in the appeal, an abusive and invasive practice of surveillance and hacking in pursuit of crimes that, lacking victims, lack any other way to prosecute, creating bad precedent that will bedevil all of us, not just accused "drug lords."

Ulbricht, if he's guilty of what they tried him for, is guilty of nothing but trying, and for a while succeeding, in doing a good thing for his fellow citizens, the world, and the future. His case will be remembered not as one of stalwart cops saving the world from dangerous crime, but of a visionary martyr punished for the good he did. 

The combination of cryptography and Bitcoin are out of the bottle, and what it ultimately means is that the war on drugs is even more hopeless than it always was. But the government seems to never run out of candidates to be the last person to be a victim of that war, a victim of that mistake. May Ulbricht be among the last.

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  1. “And its also worth considering, though the government and the jury did not seem to think it mattered, that he didn’t do any of those things, but merely helped manage a website that allowed people to do them.”

    Did they ever go after the guy that started Napster?

    I know they still haven’t gotten New Zealand to cough up Kim Dotcom.

    Reminds me, again, of Evgeny Morozov’s “The Net Delusion”, which argues, quite persuasively, that as liberating as the internet can be, it is also–to the same extent–a means by which governments reach into our lives and threaten our liberty.

    http://www.amazon.com/The-Net-…..1610391063

    All our transactions and communications are traceable and trackable, now, and why wouldn’t the government eventually exploit that?

    They’re confiscating funds from people for making deposits below the reportable $10,000 limit–no matter what the Fifth Amendment says.

    This is not the path to freedom, and I don’t see how it can end well.

    1. Reminds me, again, of Evgeny Morozov’s “The Net Delusion”, which argues, quite persuasively, that as liberating as the internet can be, it is also–to the same extent–a means by which governments reach into our lives and threaten our liberty.

      that’s been talked about here at length. The same tools we use to communicate and liberate ourselves can also be used to monitor and investigate us.

      1. And they use it.

        That book was written before the Arab Spring, but Assad, Gadaffi, et. al. used Facebook to track not just who was a dissident, but also who they were “friends” with and who they were talking to.

        I’m no Luddite. I think people should be free to make whatever choices they want about technology, but there isn’t going to be much in the way of privacy in the future. They’re going to know who you’re talking to, what you said, where you were driven, where you spent your money…

        I used to think it was the Constitution and the will of the people that protected our privacy and freedom, but I’ve come to the conclusion that the only reason the government respected our privacy in the past was because they were technologically incapable of monitoring all of us this way.

        That technological barrier is no longer there, and it’s getting cheaper and cheaper to monitor all of us, too. And I have a hard imagining what’s going to change that trajectory.

        I guess we hope that technology will continue to generate new opportunities that we didn’t have before, and that this will more than make up for the privacy we lose with the government’s ability to monitor and coerce us.

    2. We need more educated jurors. This fucking sucks. (I know, FYTW)

    3. That was a fantastic book. Love how it completely debunked Friedman’s proposition that the Internet would single-handedly tear down autocratic regimes.

  2. As he and his supporters have pointed out, that’s a somewhat dangerous legal precedent for the Internet age in which sites that facilitate communication and commerce are incredibly valuable and will become more so.

    With all due respect, Brian, I’m not seeing this as a new legal precedent– perhaps an expanded precedent, but not entirely new.

    There are lots of cases where businesses have been shut down because a municipality saw the site as a nuisance where illegal activity was being allowed to flourish.

    I do admit that it’s one thing to force a business to close, and another to try and convict them for money laundering or drug trafficking– but I’ll bet that even that’s been done before. It’s definitely been suggested.

    What I find interesting here is that the Feds via the DOJ have essentially drawn a line in the sand. As such, they’ve declared war on anyone setting up an internet venue where if illegal products are traded, they have to act.

    I guess the question becomes, what’s the threshold for illegal activity triggering an indictment of the manager/creator of the site.

    Craigslist was well known for people buying and selling small amounts of weed, yet the proprietor of Craigslist isn’t facing 30 to life.

  3. The combination of cryptography and Bitcoin are out of the bottle, and what it ultimately means is that the war on drugs is even more hopeless than it always was.

    This is my feeling too. It may take 50 or 100 years, it may only take 5 or 10. But sooner or later crypto and mesh networks will make it too difficult for the government to control the impromptu network. Meatspace will always be susceptible to government, but as meatspace becomes more and more secondary to, and controlled by, the mesh internet, the government will be more and more relegated to areas of life which simply don’t matter as much — railroads, highways, utilities.

    People won’t be using traditional banks, and the government will lose track of their investments and wealth, not to mention what they buy and sell. Just as government could control the news when it was just three broadcast TV networks but lost control over news coming over hundreds of cable and satellite channels and the infinite variety of the internet, so will they lose control of meatspace as distributed 3D printing and the crypto network hide more and more transactions.

    1. I’d like to understand why the government’s ability to track and crack these things over time won’t surpass the individual’s ability to hide and encrypt these things.

      People used to talk about Eschelon back in the day like they talk about Bildeberg and “chem trails” today.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ECHELON

      Circa 2001, people would tally up the cost of the hardware necessary to track all of our communications to debunk the conspiracy theory–and it was some ungodly, impossible number.

      That was fifteen years ago.

      Moore’s law, the dropping cost of other hardware, etc., and fifteen years later NSA is doing publicly what we all thought was crazy impossible before.

      Bitcoin uses encryption below the level prohibited by law, right? Help me understand why we shouldn’t worry that the government will be able to break that level of encryption easily in fifteen years.

      I mean, the reason they capped the amount of encryption we could use legally is because they can already crack the legal level, right?

      1. Encryption prohibited by law? We’re 15 years past the 90s.

      2. I don’t know a hell of a lot about encryption but I think when you’re talking about random key generation, it’s not so much that it’s utterly unbreakable but that it does require vast resources to do it. The big thing is each key would be different for each anonymous user every time they used it. Get enough people using it and I’m not sure even a government agency has the resources.

        To your point though, that’s certainly not going to stop those same governments from making the encryption technology itself illegal. Look at the shitstorm over Apple/Google refusing to “unlock” the phones of those arrested. Hell, look at what the government has done to that sad sap who wrote a book and taught people how to trick polygraphs.

    2. All those news channels and yet you have what, 90% of the toeing the Democratic party line, a couple toeing the Republican party line, and a couple state run channels like Al Jazeera and the BBC.

      Similarly, having social media just makes it easier to keep tabs on people.

      And good luck on people dropping banks. The minute something crashes, people will cry about their lost money and the government will swoop in and regulate it.

  4. @ Ken Shultz

    Agreed. The government will always have at its disposal more resources than all the freedom-loving individuals put together. Technology will not save us, unless we are talking about the space traveling kind, which is too far in the future to worry about. The only way forward is to increase the number of freedom-loving individuals.

  5. distribution of narcotics by means of the Internet

    This is a fantastic, revolutionary development: transporting drugs by way of electronic packets.

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  7. My suggestion: I would encourage Ross Ulbricht to continue to write from prison as the Dread Pirate Roberts. Maybe he won’t be allowed to profit from his books, but he would be continuing a long tradition of political prisoners who continued the fight from behind prison walls through their writing.

    I doubt the prison would allow it, but he could also teach some of the other drug offenders in there a thing or two about the internet and how to safely trade drugs over it.

    1. If you can smuggle cigarettes in, you can smuggle manuscripts out.

  8. “And its also worth considering, though the government and the jury did not seem to think it mattered, that he didn’t do any of those things, but merely helped manage a website that allowed people to do them.”

    So if a drug deal is made inside a Starbucks, then Starbucks is responsible?

    1. What is the likelihood of a successful appeal for this very reason? Or any other reason, for that matter?

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  10. Fine points.

    However, Ulbricht refused to actually make any of them at trial. Instead, his defense was “it wasn’t me!” and he couldn’t even convince a single juror that there was reasonable doubt. He steadfastly refused to admit that even the laptop he had in his possession when he was arrested, filled with incriminating evidence, was his (effectively throwing away a potentially-powerful 4th Amendment exclusion argument).

    Whether or not Ulbricht was moral in what he did with Silk Road is now irrelevant.

  11. Or we could just legalize drugs like we do beer, allowing consumers to safely buy them from reputable manufacturers at grocery and convenience stores.

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