Ross Ulbricht, known as Dread Pirate Roberts (31 years old), will be spending life in prison without parole. The list of charges includes conspiracy to commit drug trafficking, money laundering and computer hacking.

He is the founder of the site called Silk Road, which has been found to be complicit with the sale of approximately $200 million worth of drugs. Ulbricht himself never touched the drugs which were bought with currency that did not physically exist, through a portion of the internet that many go through their entire lives without experiencing. It is regarded as one of the harshest sentences given to a person for online/non-physical activities.

A new method of business

The Silk Road operated in what is called the ‘Deep Web’; the shadier side of the internet that features a wide variety of illegal and banned items for sale. Users navigate through it using Tor browsers, which hid their identities and allowed them to navigate these deep websites without the fear of law enforcement tracing their IP addresses.

Silk Road, established in February 2011, was a platform in which users could buy and sell drugs online. It was an eBay for ecstasy, an Amazon for amphetamines, and a bazaar that used Bitcoin; an online currency praised for its decentralized nature.

In addition to drugs, Silk Road also sold cyanide, which is believed to have been used in at least five attempted murders. Ulbricht himself was aware of this, and even requested an image of a murder from a user. The site ran like any other specializing in the sale of goods, even having reviews for sellers. It was on this site that Ulbricht was known as Captain Dread Roberts, a reference to the movie The Princess Bride.

As with most businesses, the creator was protective and proud: “I’m running a god-damn multi-million-dollar criminal enterprise”, Ulbricht said in a message obtained by the FBI.

Closing the online black market

Silk Road was shut down by authorities in 2013 after multiple sting operations. The charges against him added up to a minimum sentence of 20 years in prison. For every transaction, Ulbricht made money in the form of commission, and he kept a journal detailing his accounts and the creation of the site.

In court, his lawyer Joshua Dratel made a specific case: Ulbricht wasn’t really Captain Dread Roberts. Soon after the creation of Silk Road, Ulbricht handed the website to someone else and then the site was returned in order to make him the ‘fall guy’. This turned out to be false when persecutors brought Ulbricht’s servers as evidence. Dratel also tried to rationalize Silk Road, claiming that it helped reduce problems associated with drug trafficking, a statement that Judge Forrest strongly disagreed with.

After the jury looked at statements and evidence, they declared Ulbricht guilty on all counts. “No drug dealer from the Bronx has ever made this argument to the court. It’s a privileged argument and it’s an argument made by one of the privileged,” Judge Forrest said before giving Ulbricht his life sentence.

The aftermath

“It reminded me of when I had people close to me die,” said Lyn Ulbricht, the mother of Ross Ulbricht. She believes that her son is a political prisoner, a reference to the supporters of Ulbricht stating that the life sentence was given due to the failure of the war on drugs. Supporters have also pinned his life sentence on the government’s fear of technology and the unknown quantities of the internet.

Whether a victim of his own crimes or the frustrations of the government, Ulbricht will have a lifetime incarcerated to reflect on his actions. In a letter to Judge Forrest a week before his court appearance, he stated: “In creating Silk Road, I ruined my life and destroyed my future.”

 – Aitana Yvette Mallari, Correspondent (Tech)