Ross Ulbricht, creator of the first darknet market that used bitcoin to facilitate transactions was caught and arrested back in 2013. He was eventually sentenced to an unprecedented double life sentence plus 40 years in prison for running a website. Proponents of Ulbricht state that his sentencing was grossly unfair, and that he has been effectively condemned to die in prison as his sentence is not eligible for parole. But now, a campaign called #FreeRoss that aims to petition the US president for a release or reduced sentence for Ulbricht is picking up speed and has just passed 63,000 signatures.
Ulbricht and The Silk Road
A lot has been written about The Silk Road, so we won’t be going into too much detail on that entire case here. If you’d like to know more about the subject in detail, check out our article on the subject.
Read also: The History of Silk Road
In short, the Silk Road was an online marketplace that ran on Tor hidden services and used bitcoin to facilitate transactions. The site itself made a profit through collecting a fee for providing escrow services that made trades quite a bit safer. The site itself allowed for any and all transactions and trades, regardless of their legality. The site became most famous for its facilitation of the online drug trade. At its peak, users had near-instant access to drugs of all kinds that would arrive in the mail a few days later. The site also infamously transacted in pirated and counterfeit goods and weapons, among other things.
The United States government became very interested in the Silk Road and actively pursued it through a detailed investigation. Eventually, Ulbricht was caught due to linking accounts he made using his name Dread Pirate Roberts and were eventually linked to his real name. Once his identity was confirmed, Ulbricht was quickly arrested and the site was permanently shut down.
In its wake, a number of other darknet marketplaces have appeared, including a few potential decentralized solutions that could eventually allow for unstoppable darknet markets. Needless to say, the Silk Road was a critical turning point in bitcoin’s history, and was according to some arguments one of the first real use cases for bitcoin as a means of transaction.
What’s interesting about Ulbricht’s case is the incredibly harsh sentence that he received for his nonviolent crimes. A sentence of double life plus 40 years is almost unheard of except for in some of the most extreme cases of serial killers and drug kingpins.
For some context, in the state of Mississippi which typically gives out the longest average sentences for drug dealers tops out with an average sentence of just nine years in prison. Even if we quadruple this sentence, we are still nowhere near the sentence that Ulbricht received for his indirect involvement in the drug trade.
The sentence Ulbricht received seems even more ridiculous when we consider the average sentencing that someone found guilty of murder receives. Generally speaking, those found guilty of murder in the United States can receive sentences ranging from 16 years all the way through life in prison or the death penalty. With Ulbricht’s sentence, he is effectively given life in prison with no chance of parole.
The restriction of parole is also important, because most drug offenders will end up only serving half of their time in prison or less if they have good behavior and demonstrate personal growth. For instance, someone who receives a 10 year sentence for dealing drugs could quite likely be out on the street in as little as five years by using the parole system.
Calculating the Harm
Another important aspect of sentencing is determining how much harm someone has caused. In the case of Ross Ulbricht, this is very difficult to ascertain. This is because Ulbricht himself never directly dealt with, handled, or transacted in drugs or weapons.
So what did Ulbricht do, exactly?
He provided a marketplace for the trade of any goods or services regardless of legality. Ulbricht himself did not sell drugs or weapons, nor did he directly promote or interact with dealers of said items. However, without Ulbricht and his site, one could argue that far fewer illicit trades would have occurred during the years that the site was in operation. However, this is also difficult to prove because it is entirely likely that if Ulbricht had never set up his site, someone else would have made a similar one eventually.
Just for the sake of argument, let’s compare Ross Ulbricht to a more traditional criminal.
Let’s imagine that a criminal who is caught facilitating drugs, and facilitating weapons deals but never interacting with directly, were to be caught and sentenced. With a person like this who is merely a middleman and helped connect buyers and sellers, it’s difficult to imagine that such a person would get such an extreme sentence. More likely than not, they would get the maximum punishment for drug dealing, and the maximum punishment for weapons trade. Neither of those would justify a single life sentence, let alone double life plus 40 years with no chance of parole.
It’s obvious then that the sentencing was done for the purpose of making an example out of Ulbricht. That being, giving him a sentence so strict and severe that it would dissuade anyone else from setting up a similar site.
If that was the goal, then it has obviously failed. Countless other clones appeared one after another after another, creating new darknet marketplaces. And so punishing Ulbricht in this way has not only been a gross miscarriage of justice, but also it has failed in its goal to dissuade others from following a similar path.
— Free_Ross (@Free_Ross) August 21, 2018
The #FreeRoss campaign has been interacting with the Twitter community and other online groups in order to garner support for a petition that will eventually be sent to the US president. The goal of the group is to get Ross released with time served, or at least to give him a more realistic sentence that would have him see the outside during his life.
The campaign has also given Ulbricht a platform to communicate with the outside world. A number of messages from him have been transcribed and posted to the Twitter account.
Overall, Ulbricht appears to have a hopeful attitude, as well as a very gracious and gratitude-filled heart.
Thank you everyone. You are amazing! ???? pic.twitter.com/mvGHqmINvm
— Ross Ulbricht (@RealRossU) August 10, 2018
In the end, it will be entirely up to president Donald Trump as to how to respond to the petition. With over 63,000 signatures already, and more coming in every few minutes, it’s difficult to say how the US president will respond. However, the White House typically has a policy where petitions of 10,000 signatures or more must get some form of response, even if that response is simply a denial of what is requested.