Civil Liberties

Ross Ulbricht Gets Life Sentence for Silk Road Conviction

The sentence is a miscarriage of justice, and will likely harm drug users down the road.


Ross Ulbricht was sentenced to life in prison with no parole this afternoon by Judge Katherine Forrest in U.S. District Court for the southern district of New York.

Ulbricht was convicted back in February on seven charges, all related to the operation of the darkwebsite called Silk Road, which used Tor-enabled anonymity and the cryptocurrency bitcoin to allow people to buy and sell often illegal items in safety and security, with the site providing an escrow service between buyer and seller to ensure both were satisfied.

Ulbricht was a clever entrepreneur, enthralled by libertarian ideas derived from the likes of Murray Rothbard and Samuel Konkin about the richness and justice of truly free markets not hobbled by government threats.

 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.

None of the charges were related to either personally selling an illegal substance to anyone—Ulbricht merely ran a website that facilitated it—and none were related to causing direct harm to anyone's life or property.

Given the amazing water-muddying the prosecution achieved by talking about, but never trying Ulbricht for or proving in court beyond a reasonable doubt, allegedly planned, but never executed, murders for hire, one wonders whether the judge allowed any thoughts of those rumors, even subconsciously, to shape her sentencing decision.

sentencing letter from the U.S. attorney's office for New York essentially asked for a life sentence:

Ulbricht's recommended sentence under the United States Sentencing Guidelines is life imprisonment, with a 20-year mandatory minimum due to his conviction for engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise in violation of Title 21, United States Code, Section 848. The Probation Office, too, recommends life imprisonment, finding "no factors that could overcome the severity of the instant offense."…As set forth below, in light of the seriousness of the offense and the need for general deterrence, the Government believes that a lengthy sentence, one substantially above the mandatory minimum, is appropriate in this case.

Alas, they got what they wanted.

In addition to the prison time, the government also insists that Ulbricht owes them over $183 million, since they calculate that's the value of the illegal transactions carried out on Silk Road (by other people, but so what?)

As I've written before, Silk Road was undoubtedly a net positive for the health, safety, and liberty of most of its customers and sellers. Of course, its benefits went to people who choose to buy or sell things the government has decided we ought not buy or sell, and thus their health, safety, and liberty is something the government is an active enemy  of.

Despite a manifest inability on the state's part to actually wipe out the supposed scourge of drug use and sale, it will continue to spend shocking amounts of our tax money in a futile attempt to at least punish and ruin a few people involved. Today Ross Ulbricht is the butterfly they have broken on their cruel, grinding wheel.

Ulbricht recanted, partially, in a letter regarding his sentencing to Judge Forrest. (Vice has a good overall summation of the sentencing arguments made to Judge Forrest from both sides.) One will never know if he was speaking the truth of his heart—that's impossible to ever know in a society where people will be locked up in a cage for trying to, in Ross's own words on his LinkedIn site:

use economic theory as a means to abolish the use of coercion and aggression amongst mankind. Just as slavery has been abolished most everywhere, I believe violence, coercion and all forms of force by one person over another can come to an end. The most widespread and systemic use of force is amongst institutions and governments, so this is my current point of effort. The best way to change a government is to change the minds of the governed, however. To that end, I am creating an economic simulation to give people a first-hand experience of what it would be like to live in a world without the systemic use of force.

But government pressure did get Ulbricht, in a letter trying to ameliorate his sentence, to turn against the dream that Silk Road represented in large part, writing that Silk Road:

turned out to be a very naive and costly idea that I deeply regret…Silk Road was supposed to be about giving people the freedom to make their own choices, to pursue their own happiness, however they individually saw fit.

What it turned into was, in part, a convenient way for people to satisfy their drug addictions… I never sought to create a site that would provide another avenue for people to feed their addictions.

Still, Ulbricht remained libertarian at heart, also writing, even in this letter designed to show remorse for his "crimes," that "I still don't think people should be denied the right to make this decision for themselves…"

Like any arena of commerce, some people were willing to lie and cheat (and perhaps even kill, though that remains in some doubt) over money and property even on the Silk Road. This is unavoidable as long as humans are what they are. But the wonderful technologies of Tor and Bitcoin combined with the web developer skills of Ulbricht and/or whoever else worked on Silk Road gave users and sellers of illegal drugs something amazingly useful they never had before: a forum where they could deal with each other in anonymity and safety, where a concerned community could provide the sort of "regulation" governments can only dream about: open communication about product and seller probity, and useful advice about product use safety. Silk Road was, for those who care about the health and safety of drug users, a harm reduction dream. 

There were many questionable elements of the prosecution, leading Ulbricht lawyer Josh Dratel to call for a mistrial five times during the trial—he was denied each time—and to make a failed request for an entirely new trial after conviction. (This is a different matter than an appeal, which will be happening.) Among them were the alleged criminality, revealed publicly only after Ulbricht was convicted, on the part of two of the federal agents pursuing him. There are also the Fourth Amendment implications of the mysterious way the FBI broke into Silk Road's servers. 

Dratel told me in an email yesterday that an appeal process that will detail all the things he thought were amiss about the initial prosecution will be in motion: "The Notice of Appeal gets filed within a day or two after sentencing," he wrote. "Then there's some preliminary boilerplate paperwork followed by a schedule.  Usually the appellant's brief is due a few months down the road.  Then the government responds, we get to reply, and then the court schedules oral argument before a three-judge panel.  A decision is issued sometime after that."

The government asked the court to "send a clear message" with Ulbricht's sentence. That message is that if you dare try to make life better by creating a realm of liberty, anonymity, and reliable information surrounding something they've forbidden, they will destroy you. That message will not work, in that other people are trying to and will continue to try to emulate Ulbricht's model. After the October 2013 takedown of the original Silk road, the sale of drugs through Silk-Road-like methods has far from stopped and is more than double in listing volume than it was then. The techniques are too useful and too good to ignore, no matter how much the government tries to wreck them.

Ulbricht, whose crime was running a website that helped people buy and sell things they wanted from and to willing sellers and buyers in a realm of comparative safety and liberty, had a heart-rending plea to Judge Forrest: "I've had my youth, and I know you must take away my middle years, but please leave me my old age….Please leave a small light at the end of the tunnel, an excuse to stay healthy, an excuse to dream of better days ahead, and a chance to redeem myself in the free world before I meet my maker."

I don't know that he should worry about redemption per se. Ulbricht and Silk Road, despite his grim fate, sent out a more powerful message than the one the government wanted Judge Forrest to send: that ingenuity and technology and effort can create wonderfully helpful realms of freedom in markets and behavior.

It's a powerful and optimistic message that speaks well for the human future. The government's message that malign thugs will try to wreck your life for doing so is ugly and outmoded. Thanks to the bravery and intelligence of the likes of Ross Ulbricht, we may yet live to see the government's message die a deserved death, and Ulbricht's message continue to inspire those who value human liberty.