On January 13, 2015, jury selection commenced for the alleged Silk Road operator trial. The website, which was essentially a black market online, was used as a platform for exchanging drugs and a variety of other illegal products with Bitcoins for currency. Bitcoin, which is a form of currency only available in the past few years, has zero transaction fees and can be purchased anonymously. Defendant Ross Ulbricht will go down in the record books as one of the most notorious criminals using Bitcoin to date—but he has plenty of supporters.
Just like in the child pornography case that questioned the role of web hosts, cases like these beg the question: Who’s really at fault? When looking at different types of web hosting, there are various security levels available. However, if a person uses a website for illegal activity, should the host be required to notify authorities? Ulbricht’s pending trial brought protestors rallying outside the courthouse, holding signs with, “Web hosting is not a crime!” and “30 years to life for an honest website?”
At the very least, protestors have kickstarted an online conversation.
An unsure future
Currently, Ulbricht is being charged with seven counts including conspiracy to commit narcotics trafficking and operating a continuing criminal enterprise. It’s possible that his sentence could be life in prison. However, critics are calling the prosecuting of Ulbricht an Internet freedom attack. Silk Road was in operation from early 2011 through October 2013 according to authorities, and raked in over $1.2 billion, along with $80 million in commissions, before the FBI shut down the black market bazaar.
According to prosecutors, Ulbricht chose the alias “Dread Pirate Roberts”, which is an homage to a character in The Princess Bride. Using the Tor network, Silk Road allowed users anonymous communication, which was of course a necessity when dealing with illegal transactions. According to law enforcement, Ulbricht went to extremes to safeguard his enterprise, and even looked into hired killers to take care of six people who allegedly threatened his business. However, at the moment there’s no evidence suggesting murders were actually committed.
A long road ahead for Ulbricht
Although Ulbricht has been held since his October arrest, he’s pled not guilty—and claims that he’s not the Silk Road creator. There were 12 jury members and four alternatives chosen, who will be overseen by US District Judge Katherine Forrest. The jury selection pool consisted of 90 potentials. This was after 92 possible jurors were already dismissed following analysis of their written survey answers. In the survey, questions focused on computer tendencies, how much a person knew about Bitcoins or Silk Road—and whether they had heard of Dread Pirate Roberts outside of The Princess Bride.
As such a high profile case, it’s expected to take several months or even years to reach a resolution. However, it’s a big contributor to who’s responsible when a website allegedly is a platform for illegal activity. At the very least, it will help set a precedent for future cases and perhaps give web hosts and website owners a clearer vision of what falls within their realm of management.