Ross Ulbricht Trial: Internet Libertarians Agree Their Dealer Is 'a Good Guy'
Silk Road boss's groupies cope with their hero's conviction.
Two Ross Ulbricht supporters at the libertarian Porcupine Festival. Image: Free Ross/Facebook
When a New York jury found 30-year-old Ross Ulbricht guilty on Wednesday of all seven charges stemming from launching and running internet drug market Silk Road, thousands of his supporters were tuned in.
Dozens of protesters demonstrated outside of the courthouse when Ulbricht's trial began, one of whom carried a sign that read "The chosen one," emblazoned with Ulbricht's face and a Bitcoin symbol. More than $339,000 has been donated to Ulbricht's defense fund. Thousands of users have tweeted under the #FreeRoss hashtag on twitter, and as Ulbricht, who now faces a maximum of life in prison, was led out of the federal courtroom after the jury's verdict, a supporter in the crowd yelled, "Ross is a hero!"
How did this mild-mannered physics student from Texas attract so many groupies? Some support Ulbricht because they believe the case would set a precedent for internet freedom and the viability and anonymity of cryptocurrency like Bitcoin, which was used exclusively on the site.
"If Ulbricht is convicted, it opens the door for the censure and erosion of a free Internet," FreeRoss.org, a site run by Ulbricht's family says. "Under present law, website hosts are not held responsible in civil cases for illegal actions on their sites. This case could set precedent and open the door to criminal liability for web hosts."
Many of his supporters have also built him up as a kind of libertarian icon for running the online free market under the government's nose. Although Ulbricht's personal beliefs were barred from being brought up as part of the defense's case, they are central to the wealth of support he has garnered from those outside the courthouse. His LinkedIn page, which is still online, paints a picture of an "investment advisor" with libertarian ideals.
"I want to use economic theory as a means to abolish the use of coercion and agression (sic) amongst mankind," the page says. "Just as slavery has been abolished most everywhere, I believe violence, coercion and all forms of force by one person over another can come to an end. The most widespread and systemic use of force is amongst institutions and governments, so this is my current point of effort."
Tatiana Moroz, a libertarian Bitcoin activist who wrote a tribute song to Ulbricht, said that ideology is exactly what attracted her and many other Ulbricht supporters to the case.
"If you look at what is going on in this country and in the world, people feel very powerless, they're unable to make an impact," she said. "Their money is taken from them, and what does that go toward? It goes toward programs we don't necessarily support that are ineffective and wasteful. So, the creation of Silk Road was supposed to be a response to this, a free market. People may not like that people do drugs, but people are doing drugs, so why not make it safer?"
Many say their support for Ulbricht stems from outrage about the drug war in the US and its broader effects. Roger Ver, a Bitcoin entrepreneur who donated $160,000 to his legal defense fund is one such supporter.
"I donated money to the case because I think that each individual owns their own body, and has the absolute right to put whatever they want into it," Ver told Motherboard in an email. "The police, judges, and jail guards who lock people in cages for ingesting substances without the permission of strangers, are the ones committing evil and need to stop."
However, there is a contradiction at the heart of this support: Ulbricht maintains he is innocent.
Although Ulbricht has admitted to creating Silk Road, he argues he became overwhelmed by the site after just a couple months and sold it to someone else, who then ballooned it to the drug empire it became under the pseudonym the Dread Pirate Roberts.
"Whether he is DPR or not, I still see him as a hero."
"That Ross is DPR is a contradiction so fundamental it defies common sense," Ulbricht's attorney Joshua Dratel said in his opening statements of the trial. "The real DPR is still out there."
So which is it? Is Ulbricht a libertarian idol who thwarted government pursuit for several years while running the lawless underground market, or simply an innocent tech-savvy dude who sold his startup when it got too stressful?
For John Bush, founder and editor in chief of libertarian-leaning activist site Liberty Beat, the distinction doesn't matter.
"Whether he is DPR or not, I still see him as a hero," Bush said. "If he's not DPR, he's an innocent person that is being convicted, and if he is DPR, I see him as an innovator and someone circumventing this drug war which is really unethical and immoral."
Moroz similarly said Ulbricht's creation of the site coupled with his libertarian ideology was enough to win her support.
"Just because you create something, and don't want to be in charge of it anymore, that's not a bad thing necessarily," she said. "I don't think because he walked away from it, that makes his original impetus to make it any less valid."
After Ulbricht was convicted, his attorney immediately promised an appeal. Donations are still pouring in to the Free Ross fund. Bush said he and many of his readers will continue to support Ulbricht, who they feel has come to represent much more than Silk Road.
"There are millions of people in this country and across the globe that feel the way that I do and that Ross does, that we don't need to rely on these centralized institutions in order to organize peaceful society, he said. "He wasn't trying to be a martyr, but in many ways he became a martyr for the cause."