Ross Ulbricht, the creator of illegal marketplace Silk Road, has been sentenced this week to life imprisonment, without the chance of parole.
This means that Ulbricht will spend most – if not all – of his life behind bars, even if his defence team do manage to work some degree of leniency into a future appeal.
If there was any lingering doubt that just because a crime is committed through a computer it isn’t treated with the same austerity as other types of crime, then this should go some way to permanently destroying that illusion.
Ulbricht created and operating Silk Road, an online marketplace that dealt almost exclusively with illegal trade. Think of it like a digital black market. Drugs, guns, even hit men, could be sought after and sold.
Of course setting up a normal website on the Internet dealing with such an illicit catalogue would be shut down straight away, and would probably have its creator behind bars before the day is out. However Silk Road operated exclusively on the Tor Network, which only people with specialist software can access.
The Tor Network is designed with anonymity in mind. Anyone who accesses the network has their location masked. Also, Silk Road dealt only in Bitcoin, an untraceable digital currency that also places priority on anonymity.
Silk Road was popular between 2011 and 2013, and netted Ulbricht millions. However many died as a result of the website. Drugs purchased from the website were responsible for several fatal overdoses, and Ulbricht was involved with various attempted murder-for-hire charges, though none of these made their way to the final charges list.
The judge presiding the case handed the maximum sentence possible, siding wholly with the prosecution team, also noting that just because the crimes were committed using a keyboard and Internet connection, that it was to be no different than if Ulbricht was heading an offline drugs and weapons empire.
There must be no doubt that you cannot run a massive criminal enterprise and because it occurred over the internet minimize the crime committed on that basis.
Because the marketplace was operating on the Tor Network, it took authorities years to investigate and prosecute, as well as relying on slip-ups by Ulbricht to finally take him down.
And there is no doubt the entire case it poised to reignite the controversial debate over privacy on the Internet, and how networks like Tor operate to hide the identities of the criminals who use them to protect themselves from the law.
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