Ross Ulbricht created the most famous encrypted marketplace on the Dark Web, called the Silk Road. Through it, anonymous users could purchase nearly any illegal thing, but the site became famous for drugs. Sellers were rated (by discreteness of packaging, price, and quality), and it cost money (in Bitcoin of course) to be added to the site. It was a thriving business for a time.
Then in 2013, the FBI shut down Silk Road and arrested Ross Ulbricht, under suspicion that he was in fact the creator of the site, known as the Dread Pirate Roberts. Convicted of money laundering, computer hacking, and conspiracy to traffic narcotics, among other things, Ulbricht has now been sentenced to life in prison without parole. Why the harsh sentencing?
The Justice Department . . . argued in their letter to Judge Forrest that Ulbricht should be made an example of to stop even more Dark Web market kingpins from following in his footsteps. After all, dozens of copycat sites and advancements on the Silk Road market model have sprouted in the years since its takedown, including the Silk Road 2, Evolution, and the currently largest Dark Web black market to survive law enforcement’s attacks, Agora. To combat the spread of those anonymous bazaars, prosecutors asked Judge Forrest to “send a clear message” with a sentence for Ulbricht well beyond the mandatory minimum.
Judge Forrest sided with the prosecution on that point, too, arguing that she needed to create a strong deterrent for the next Dread Pirate Roberts. “For those considering stepping into your shoes…they need to understand without equivocation that there will be severe consequences,” Forrest said.
It’s hard to say exactly what legal legacy this sentencing is part of. The war on drugs? Or the war on privacy? I’m not defending Ross Ulbricht. But life in prison without parole for creating an anonymous online marketplace for illegal substances? Consider for a moment that there are murderers and rapists with lighter sentences than that. I can’t help but think much of this harshness stems from a desire to squash the Dark Web before it becomes a more necessary tool of freedom. And as much as I disagree with Ulbricht’s life choices, and the uses of Silk Road and the Dark Web, I can’t endorse this sentence.