Ross Ulbricht received two consecutive life sentences plus 40 years. He must have done something terrible, right? The film Deep Web, which explores his crime, capture and prosecution screened at the libertarian themed Anthem Film Festival, part of FreedomFest, July 13-16 at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas.
The Anthem Film Festival can mess with your mind. Two years ago, films completely changed my views on Afghanistan and international relief organizations. This year, Deep Web overturned everything I thought I knew about Silk Road.
Before seeing the film, like most people, I believed Silk Road was a criminal enterprise — a gigantic drug network and online cartel run by a drug lord known as the Dread Pirate Roberts (a pseudonym lifted from The Princess Bride). It turns out that this was a highly distorted picture.
What It Was
Silk Road was a digital marketplace, similar to Amazon or Etsy.com. It differed in that it operated using the anonymous TOR network and employed only the digital currency known as bitcoin.
The TOR network uses a system of servers distributed around the world to maintain user anonymity and befuddle security systems. I had used TOR, years ago, to bypass my then employer’s ban on Facebook and Twitter. It was easy.
Bitcoin is a system of monetary exchange set up on the Internet that allows individuals to sell and buy products and services independently of government controlled money and central banks.
Silk Road was used to sell drugs, among many other items. According to the film, several systems administrators shared the Dread Pirate Roberts login. All of them enforced a policy that aimed at preventing under age people from using the system and banned harmful activities, such as child porn, from the system.
What Ulbricht Did
So, Ross Ulbricht has effectively been sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison, while most big drug dealers now get five to eight years. And, according to Deep Web, he never sold drugs, nor has anyone ever come forward claiming to be harmed by any of his activities.
Something seems amiss, here.
According to the film, and comments by his mother, Lyn Ulbricht, during a question and answer session after the screening, there were problems with the investigation and, apparently, with the motivation for the prosecution as well.
Lyn Ulbricht pointed out that the two primary investigators in the case, now both in prison themselves, were corrupt. They had high-level administrative access within Silk Road, which they used to steal millions of dollars in bitcoins. They could change the content of saved chats and had access to bank accounts, key evidence used in the trial. Given their illegal activities, they had a clear motivation to alter evidence. It was the evidence they provided that was used in the trial. According to Ulbricht, the government is refusing to disclose evidence that led to the arrest of the investigators.
It is impossible to prove, and one must be cautious before going into the black hole of conspiracy theories, but there seems to have been a political motive for the prosecution of Ross Ulbricht. The judge in the trial referred to the “libertarian” nature of the site, as if libertarianism was a crime.
Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), a senior member of the Banking Committee, pushed the prosecution on the federal level. Bankers do not like bitcoin. Creators of communications conduits are not normally held responsible for criminal activities committed using the conduits. Thousands of crimes are committed daily with the use of telephones, but no one arrests or tries to shut down Verizon.
An audience member asked Lyn Ulbricht if things would have been different if her son had not been involved in drug sales. She said he was never into drugs. “He was a Ron Paul supporter. His motivation was to create an international bitcoin exchange where people could engage in transactions freely. There are many things, such as drugs, that libertarians believe should be a personal choice. My son never hurt anyone.”
The prosecution based much of its case on the accusation that Ross Ulbricht was the Dread Pirate Roberts. An audience member asked if there could have been more than one “DPR.”
Lyn Ulbricht replied, “It is not even possible that he could have been the only Dread Pirate Roberts. That is easily proven. My son did not get a fair trial and that means we are at a crossroads. We are careening into a digital age. Most of the evidence against him was digital and we all know how easily that can be faked and planted.”
She continued, “This will impact all of us. Are we going in the direction of innovation and freedom, or will technology be used for government control? It is a crucial time in history.”
A trailer for Deep Web is at the end of this review. More information about Ross Ulbricht and his case is at freeross.org, where you can make donations to help with his legal appeals. You can view Deep Web on iTunes and VOD or purchase it directly from the filmmakers. Special licensing arrangements are available for schools, non-profits, and community groups.