Depending on who you ask, Ross Ulbricht is either a true hero of libertarianism and Austrian economics whom the government has turned into a martyr, or a ruthless criminal who is responsible for ruining the lives of millions of drug abusers who may have sought to hire dark web assassins.
Personally, I see him more as a Walter White type (the lead character from AMC's "Breaking Bad"): a regular, skilled and educated fellow who discovered a brilliant illegal money-making scheme, gave it ideological justifications, tried to hide in plain sight, and eventually got caught when his drug empire outgrew his capacity to remain cautious.
Our culture is fascinated by young outlaws with uncanny proficiency in escaping authorities, and Ross is a contemporary Billy the Kid whose ballads are yet to be written and sung. No other figure in history has managed to create such a complex economic framework for free exchanges (or, as governmental officials would call it, a black market).
And none of this would have been possible with Uncle Sam's currency of choice - Bitcoin has played a major part in developing Ulbricht’s billion-dollar business, and the fabulous 2013 price increase of the crypto king was in part due to its usecase in uncensored markets such as the Silk Road.
At its peak, the now-defunct Silk Road was so big that I remember students in a Paris campus talking about it. It was a popular website, people were buying Bitcoin just to make use of it on the free unregulated market, and it's very likely that at some point in the future we will have a dedicated season of Narcos on Netflix, which documents the incredible rise of deep web's favorite drug hub.
Why Ross Ulbricht's Request for Clemency Is Justified
On July 13, 2018 Ross Ulbricht's mother created a Change.org petition that asks for the clemency of the alleged Mr. Dread Pirate Roberts (the persona that got her son into trouble). The argument is pretty libertarian in its formulation: Mr. Ulbricht had only created a website like eBay, which allowed anyone to list items for sale. The fact that drug lords ended up using Silk Road does not make the creator responsible, since anyone could sign up and sell anything.
However, Dread Pirate Roberts did set the "no harm principle" as the fundamental rule of Silk Road: so that guns, child porn, and other items that damage the physical integrity or reputation of others would never get listed.
Ms. Ulbricht also argues that the sentence is draconian: a double life sentence for non-violent charges is far harsher than something murderers, rapists, and other violent criminals get on a regular basis. So there is an argument to be made that the sentence was overly harsh, possibly as a way to make an example in this unprecedented case. Then there's also the economic argument, that keeping Ross in prison for life burdens the taxpayers out of $2 million, while he's an educated individual who could use his intelligence and skills to good use and give back to the community.
Hi, this is Ross! I’m hoping to find my voice here after all these years of silence. It has been a strange journey, but I’m so grateful for all those who’ve shown love and support and held me up through the hard times. You give me strength. https://t.co/x4m6J3lgha— Ross Ulbricht (@RealRossU) July 19, 2018
Erik Voorhees and Charlie Lee Support the Petition
Shapeshift founder Erik Voorhees is one of the best-known libertarians in the crypto space. He made a name for himself as a free market advocate long before getting involved in Bitcoin. He has repeatedly mentioned the experience of visiting Ross Ulbricht in prison just to inform him that people still care about his cause.
On July 19. 2018 the star of Neflix's documentary "Banking on Bitcoin" tweeted a link to the petition and even mentioned President Trump. The reactions were mixed, as some people referred to an alleged attempt Ross made, involving hiring 6 assassins (though the claims were never charged in court and the FBI employees who put them forward are said to be corrupt).
A few hours later, Litecoin founder Charlie Lee tweeted a link to the petition, mentioning how he first read about Bitcoin in a newspaper article about the Silk Road. It just goes to show that Ross is very influential in the space, and many people who got involved before talks of mainstream adoption emerged owe their choices to the dark web marketplace’s existance.
Satoshi Lite's post received more reactions than Mr. Voorhees', and most of them were negative - to the point some people were upset this could negatively influence the price of LTC. Nevertheless, Mr. Lee's argument was very similar: he agrees with the claims of Ms. Ulbricht, and chooses not to believe in the charges of attempted murder (which were never challenged in court).
At press time, the advocacy of the two crypto heavyweights has helped the petition reach over 22,000 signatures.
I found out about Bitcoin from an article on Silk Road. Whatever you think of Silk Road, Ross Ulbricht, creator of Silk Road, does not deserve a life sentence w/o the possibility of parole. Please join me to sign the petition: https://t.co/ln7BeGuoWR #FreeRossPetition @Free_Ross— Charlie Lee [LTC⚡] (@SatoshiLite) July 20, 2018
It was really bold on their behalf to side with somebody who's been turned into a scapegoat of internet crime, and support the clemency of the person who is responsible for Bitcoin's bad reputation – because of Silk Road's business model, Bitcoin is still seen by some as a currency for criminals and drug lords.
Will the Petition Succeed?
The chances are rather thin while the arguments have logic, we don't have a real precedent for Mr. Ulbricht's actions. Were his offenses non-violent? Yes, but we still have to take into account the consequences and physical impact his free market had on the lives of thousands (if not millions) of people.
This is just the official justification - Silk Road was encrypted by virtue of the .onion protocols of the ToR browser, and individual sellers are nearly impossible to catch. If Ross didn't use the Wi-Fi of a public library on the day FBI agents were tracing him, he could still be out there being Dread Pirate Roberts and charging Monero.
Then there's another layer: a marketplace where illicit substances are commonly sold gets fueled by money that isn't issued nor controlled by the US Federal Government. This business model can extend beyond a basic .onion website and create a competitive parallel black market, so the government had to respond brutishly. This is one of the arguments used by people who claim Ross Ulbricht’s trial was actually against Bitcoin.
In the minds of prosecutors and judges, giving a double life sentence to someone who opens a free marketplace for drugs is a way of deterring other people from starting similar projects. If they can't catch the criminal themselves, they shall jail the founder and set an example to the entire community.
This is the letter Ross Ulbricht posted on Twitter to authenticate his social media presence.
Being a case with no precedent, this has less to do with Ross Ulbricht himself and more to do with setting an example. The sentence is the modern-day equivalent of hanging in the city square or having someone guillotined during the French Revolution. The intended message isn't "this person is a monster", but rather "don't follow this example". Justice serves a purpose of deterrance and discouragement, not one of correcting the actions of the individual.
The Silk Road opened a pandora's box and now that the world knows uncesored markets can exist and still do to this day, for better or worse his legacy lives in the countless other Silk Road imitations. Whether or not the people resonisble for Silk Road 2.0 will recieve double life sentences is yet yo be seen.