What Exactly Is Going on With the Silk Road Case?

Ross William Ulbricht Photo: Linkedin

Tuesday marked the beginning of the federal government’s trial against Ross Ulbricht, the 30-year-old “investment adviser and entrepreneur” accused of being the evil mastermind behind Silk Road, a drug marketplace hidden beneath layers of encryption on a portion of the internet called the Deep Web. Silk Road was shuttered by the FBI in 2013 when they arrested Ulbricht, though imitation drug bazaars have popped up since then. If all this is making zero sense to you, welcome! Pop on a fedora, switch on your e-cig, press pause on that libertarian podcast, and let us venture into the mysterious world of the Silk Road trial.

What is the Deep Web?
If you’ve made it this far into the internet without knowing what the Deep Web is, congratulations! And also, my apologies for destroying your blissful ignorance. The simplest explanation for the Deep Web is this: It is a collection of websites not indexed by search engines and thus obscured from public view. It is estimated to be approximately 500 times the size of the “surface web,” which is the web you and I usually browse.

All right, but what is the Dark Net? What’s the difference?
The Dark Net is a subsection within the Deep Web. The Dark Net is comprised of hidden sites that are given the domain .onion (as opposed to .com, .org, etc.). The primary way to access these sites is to download special software — like the Tor Browser  that anonymizes web traffic. The whole point of Tor is to allow users to browse the web anonymously, without their IP addresses or other identifying information being logged. Think of the Dark Net as its own internet completely separate from the rest of the web, and only accessible by Tor.

What is Silk Road?
Silk Road is one of many online marketplaces that was situated within the Dark Net where users could buy and sell goods, both legal and illegal, using the cryptocurrency Bitcoin (more on Bitcoin here). Silk Road sellers peddled everything from drugs to fake ID documents to weapons. For this reason, it quickly became a target of the FBI, which seized the site and arrested its alleged operator, Ross William Ulbricht, last year. 

Who is Ross William Ulbricht?
A then-29-year-old tech dude who studied physics at the University of Texas and materials science and engineering at Penn State, Ulbricht was living in San Francisco when the FBI eventually tracked him down through a sting operation in 2013 and accused him of being “Dread Pirate Roberts,” the pseudonymous proprietor of Silk Road. Ulbricht was an outspoken libertarian both online and off. His friends were shocked to learn of his potential involvement. “I don’t know how they messed it up and I don’t know how they got Ross wrapped into this, but I’m sure it’s not him,” one of Ulbricht’s old friends told the Verge.

What exactly is he accused of?
Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, has charged Ulbricht with a host of crimes, including: one count of narcotics conspiracy, which carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment and a mandatory minimum sentence of ten years; one count of engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise, which carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment and a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in prison; one count of conspiracy to commit computer hacking, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison; and one count of money laundering conspiracy, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

Ulbricht was also accused of orchestrating a murder-for-hire scheme in order to silence a Silk Road user who was trying to extort him, and thus indicted in a Maryland court in October 2013 for conspiracy to commit murder of a witness, use of interstate commerce in murder-for-hire, and conspiracy to contribute a controlled substance. Those charges will be addressed at a later date.

What’s Ulbricht’s defense?
Ulbricht and his parents have fiercely maintained his innocence since his arrest, and various pro-Ross groups, like Free Ross Ulbricht, have cropped up to help support him during the trial.

In his opening statements to the court on Tuesday, defense attorney Joshua Dratel argued that Ulbricht was the original creator of Silk Road, which he set up as a kind of “economic experiment.” But, the defense maintains, after a few months Ulbricht grew tired of maintaining the site, and handed control off to a group of other people — including the “real” Dread Pirate Roberts — who set him up to be the fall guy once the Feds began closing in.

On Thursday, Dratel expanded on this theory, fingering Mark Karpeles, the founder and operator of a now-defunct Bitcoin exchange called Mt. Gox, as the real kingpin behind Silk Road. “Our position is that [Karpeles] set up Mr. Ulbricht,” Dratel told the jury.

What is the prosecution arguing?
So far, the prosecution has provided some pretty damning evidence linking Ulbricht directly to Silk Road, including documentation proving that Ulbricht had a Silk Road administrator panel open when he was arrested by the FBI at the Glen Dale Public Library in San Francisco. They’ve also produced “a journal and logbook found on his laptop that detail his activities running the Silk Road,” and will eventually put a college friend on the stand to testify that Ulbricht admitted to him that he ran Silk Road, reports Wired.

The undercover Department of Homeland Security officer who commandeered several Silk Road accounts in order to develop a relationship with Dread Pirate Roberts online also gave a detailed testimony on how he managed to lay the trap that allegedly caught Ulbricht: Using a Silk Road administrator’s handle he’d taken over, agent Jared Deryeghiayan started a conversation with Ulbricht that required him to open a Silk Road administrator panel as FBI agents watched him at the library; as soon as he logged in, the feds seized his laptop.

Why should I care about any of this?
The Ulbricht trial could have serious implications on the future of the internet. As the Daily Beast put it, “if you care about due process, Fourth Amendment protections against illegal searches, the limits of government surveillance, and Internet freedom, you should pay attention.”


Explainer: What Is the Silk Road Case?