Ross Ulbricht, creator of the drug-trafficking site Silk Road, was sentenced recently to life in prison. The site was an online marketplace for purchasing heroin, cocaine, and other illegal drugs.
In the three years Silk Road was in operation, it generated more than $213 million dollars, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. When the site was shut down in October 2013, there were over 13,000 items available for sale. The judge presiding over the case called the site “a worldwide digital drug-trafficking enterprise.”
The site was part of the dark web, a network of hidden sites where people can browse anonymously without being monitored or tracked. It worked as a hub for sellers to connect with buyers, much like other online marketplaces such as eBay or etsy. There were almost a million registered users worldwide. About 30% of them were U.S. residents.
Sellers on the site had to pay a fee to post their merchandise. Ulbritch pocketed the fee, as well as commissions on sales. Authorities who investigated the case said over 1.5 million transactions were processed.
Buyers purchased items using bitcoins, an anonymous virtual currency. Illegal drugs made up 70 percent of the merchandise sold on the site, but fake licenses, cigarettes, erotica, and books were also available for purchase. The site prohibited items such as weapons, child pornography, and stolen credit cards.
Prosecutors in the case said Ulbritch had “developed a blueprint for a new way to use the Internet to undermine the law and facilitate criminal transactions.”
His defense said he had created the website but other participants took it over and that he was later lured back in and named the culprit. Ulbritch was caught when he checked his Gmail account from the same café where he had logged into an anonymous network with a false IP address. He was leaving comments about Silk Road on other dark web sites in order to drum up business. Federal agents had been tracking his activity but couldn’t pinpoint his location until then.
During the trial, Ulbritch made a plea to the judge about why he created Silk Road.
“I wanted to empower people to be able to make choices in their lives, for themselves,” he said, “and to have privacy and anonymity.”
Prosecutors called him a digital drug kingpin and said that Silk Road was the cause of addiction and fatal overdoses.
After handing down his sentence - two life sentences, a 20-year sentence, a 15-year sentence and a five-year sentence without parole - the judge told him “what you did in connection with Silk Road was terribly destructive to our social fabric.”
Ulbricht’s attorney called the sentence unreasonable and unfair. They had argued that because the drug trafficking was online, it was safer than traditional drug deals done on the street. His lawyers have appealed his conviction. It's the latest in several attempts to contest the case, but none have been successful.
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