Op-Ed: Silk Road Case Is a Fight Against Injustice

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Hacker on the screen.
The Silk Road shutdown and Ross Ulbricht’s court case: an update and retrospective look at Silk Road and Bitcoin.

We’ve entered year five that engineer and libertarian Ross Ulbricht is spending behind bars following his arrest in a public library in 2013, but the case is dripping with mixed political agendas, digital rights concerns, and Bitcoin discrediting.

The creator and operator of Silk Road were caught in the middle.

The original Silk Road was the first dark web marketplace that functioned in an extremely efficient and elegant manner: the first to recognize the potential of cryptocurrency and integrate it into an eBay-style marketplace.

Silk Road was so good that it gained the attention of U.S. politicians, who turned the site into a talking point to garner support and satisfy their stakeholders.

Ulbricht was arrested in San Francisco and tried by the Southern District of New York. Senator Chuck Schumer led the verbal assault on the marketplace in the years preceding.

There was a clear underlying basis in his push to shut down Silk Road: it was helping to develop Bitcoin, a threat to the financial system, and a threat to Senator Schumer’s wealthy constituents.

Your TOR usage is being watched

It’s entirely plausible to believe that we have the Silk Road’s association with Bitcoin and cryptocurrency to thank for the “over the top” Know Your Customer regulations that exist in modern day cryptocurrency trading.

Once politicians find a chord that resonates, they strum it until the strings break.

But the Silk Road needed to go down. The first always falls.

The Man Behind the Market

Ross Ulbricht, a non-violent and normal guy, is currently housed in a maximum security prison. His trial was a farce.

The judiciary failed to address points of evidence that placed the handcuffs on Ulbricht to begin with. Law enforcement somehow obtained access to the server that was running the Silk Road in Iceland.

There is no other plausible explanation other than a state-backed hacking operation.

Therefore, a U.S. law enforcement agency hacked a foreign county’s infrastructure to obtain information in relation to a domestic matter, and this entire line of questioning regarding the legality was never discussed or raised by the judge in the Silk Road case.

This core piece of evidence was never touched. It was never explained in open court. Their Honor somehow found no reason to allow the accused an opportunity to flesh out these details.

Where is the victims that Ross left aggrieved? It’s arguable that the victim in the Silk Road case is any beneficiary to the traditional War on Drugs infrastructure that has built up over the last 40 years: the bloated U.S. prison system, law enforcement agencies directly, all the contractors that service minor drug charge prisoners, pharmaceutical companies that sell drug test kits to the private prisons, each with shareholders to satisfy.

It looks as though these are the only victims in this case. Ross had a new service, off the page, outside of the system. And as such, it needed to be destroyed, for there were victims, and the victims were corporations.

This case is a warning to anyone who believes in standing up to these corporations and the ecosystem they’ve created.

Government Control at the Expense of Justice

Moreover, how do can we as a society integrate laws created to curb violence-fueled cartels into the digital sphere? The digital sphere, which is arguably non-violent as a sheer necessity?

Can intermediaries be responsible for the users of a service? This too is an interesting question. One which has precedent in jurisdictions other than the United States.

In Australia, internet service providers (ISPs) are not responsible for what their users do. This was set in a landmark case where film studios claimed ISPs ought to be liable for its users torrenting.

What we have here in the case of Ulbricht and Silk Road is bigger than the core facts presented in court documents. It’s more than a young guy who believed in what some would call “extreme” libertarian views: where a person should have access to anything without governmental control.

What we have is a blatant trampling of a person’s rights to fulfill a line of political rhetoric. Ross was afforded no justice because he was afforded no fair trial.

The judiciary branch of a working democracy exists to keep the State, and by extension law enforcement, in check. In this particular case, the judiciary acted like another leg of the same pig. No separation of power. No working democracy.

This is a case where the judiciary branch is in bed with the government. Gun rights? Forget gun rights. The judiciary no longer questions law enforcement, as law enforcement continues to operate in their gray bubble where results and convictions mean more than truth.

Law enforcement operates in a world where nothing matters other than results, damned the morality.

A Lesson About Digital Rights

Lines with Dots on the screen.
Ulbricht may have done something against the law. But to obey an unjust law is to agree by participation in an unjust system.

There is a clear double standard for our digital lives. Any user of the dark web understands this to a basic degree.

It’s what has driven some of us to a non-indexed, unfiltered version of the internet.

Only now in 2018 is our digital rights even being considered by mainstream media. The recent Facebook fiasco is no surprise to the informed.

It’s imperative that we understand that if we are using a service for free, we are not the customer. If we’re not the customer, then we are still providing the business with value.

It has taken until 2018 for us to realize the scope of big data, the depth of it all.

The fact remains that Ross did operate the dark web marketplace Silk Road and that in this operation his actions most certainly reached the elements for crimes. This largely isn’t disputed.

The FreeRoss.org campaign tactfully fails to address this fact, and ultimately perhaps they should. However, the reason the FreeRoss campaign is important and deserves our support has nothing to do with the operation of the Silk Road.

It has to do with the investigatory powers, tactics and injustice served to Ross Ulbricht—all in the political pursuit to smear Bitcoin and link the cryptocurrency to nefarious activities.

Bitcoin the Ultimate Target in Silk Road Case

This case was ultimately a Bitcoin case. Ross was caught in San Francisco. The servers running Silk Road were in Iceland.

There is only one reason why the matter was heard in the Southern District of New York: to create a precedent.

A powerful precedent that created judiciary literature to be torn from the pages of court transcript volumes and burnt as fuel to power a cryptocurrency regulatory machine.

An immediate precedent was sought, and one in the district where core financial regulations are built, shaped, challenged and made.

Ironically, the Bitcoins seized by law enforcement following the shutdown and seizure of Ulbricht’s accounts were subsequently auctioned off just in the same way law enforcement would auction off a drug dealer’s car or any goods.

In doing so, the authorities unwittingly made a positive action to legitimized Bitcoin: the entire system they fought to smear. This auction said to the world: “Bitcoin has value, and the U.S. government knows it.”

The threat Bitcoin had on the financial industry was already apparent to authorities. By creating even the connotation in relation to Bitcoin and criminal transactions, Ross Ulbricht acted as a sacrificial lamb.

Ever wonder why “Anti-Money Laundering” and “Counter-Terrorism Financing” regulations govern cryptocurrency exchanges? The Silk Road case.

The Ideology Permeating the Silk Road Story

Ulbricht may have done something against the law. But to obey an unjust law is to agree by participation in an unjust system.

Do new marketplaces have the same ideological foundations as Silk Road? No. Services do exist to harm other people or exist as a result of harm done to others. The true and good libertarian credo full hearteningly believed by Ulbricht is an ideology we should all strive to find a connection with.

We’re all criminals. This is truly how the government sees us. We must hand over key information in order to even obtain Bitcoin, information that is incredibly sensitive.

This is the result of the Silk Road case. Guilty until proven innocent. This is the new legal pillar. A pillar built in the night. A pillar whose stone was slipped onto pages deep in convoluted legislation. Passed without debate. Without public scrutiny. Without hope.

Is Ross Ulbricht a political prisoner? Perhaps.



Con's education background is law, where he's published on crypto-currency regulation. His opinion editorials range across the relationships between people and technology and the societal challenges it presents. His passion is for information security and the intertwining legal issues
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