Today in Tabs: The Dread Pirate Ulbricht

The Silk Road trial, broken down, tab by tab.

Today in Tabs: The Dread Pirate Ulbricht
[Photos: Flickr users Antana, fdecomite, e-Magine Art]

Today we have a special report from Today in Tabs’s Senior Legal correspondent Sarah Jeong. Sarah is a noted Harvard Law graduate but (she tells me) not-yet-lawyer who also writes the shockingly good copyright law and supernatural events newsletter Five Uncanny Articles, along with some dude. Sarah has been covering the just-completed Silk Road trial for Forbes, and apparently cannot stop writing about it even though it’s over. I have received troubling reports that she’s still sitting in the courtroom today, alone, scribbling pretend notes on an imaginary legal pad. All of us here at Tabs wish her a speedy recovery.


Silk Road was a massive anonymous online marketplace where you could buy any drug you wanted as long as you had bitcoins. Its alleged operator, Ross Ulbricht, is an adorable libertarian man-child who may or may not have been catfished into hiring fake hitmen from the Hells Angels. Ulbricht was found guilty on Wednesday on all seven counts in his Manhattan trial, so that’s the only time this post will contain the word “alleged.” (That one doesn’t count, it’s in quotes.)

Illustration by Susie Cagle

Reporter/cartoonist Susie Cagle and I covered the trial for Forbes, and obviously our work was awesome and great and full of drawings of moments that would have otherwise gone entirely uncaptured. (Ed: Yes.)

The trial lasted about four weeks; four weeks in which tech journalists (some of whom, like us, had flown in from California) had their smartphones forcibly ripped from their tweeting fingers by court security. Four weeks crammed into an unfamiliar environment full of unfamiliar creatures called “print journalists.” Who even knew those still existed?

Silk Road was a revolution, a societal disruption, an existential threat to the war on drugs, and a natural consequence of lazy millennials wanting Seamless for their drug habits. But most importantly, Silk Road was a media phenomenon created by the media, brought low by the media, and ruthlessly cannibalized by the media. In 2011, Adrian Chen‘s Gawker article turned Silk Road into a global sensation and also the subject of Senator Chuck Schumer‘s ire. The write-up also got mentioned in the Dread Pirate Roberts’s diary, in an entry that made it into trial exhibits. Yes, Ross Ulbricht went by the handle “Dread Pirate Roberts.” Yes, he kept a diary, with notes on his criminal conspiracy. No, it wasn’t named mycrimes_UPDATED.txt, but the jury managed to find him guilty anyways.

Government Exhibit 241

Also mentioned at trial was Andy Greenberg‘s (then at Forbes, now at Wired) 2013 interview of DPR, which not only made it into Diary_Of_A_Super_Guilty_Kingpin.docx but also into a Department of Homeland Security agent‘s affidavit swearing he had probable cause to believe that the CEO of a bitcoin company was the real Dread Pirate Roberts. Because reasons. One reason was apparently that the DPR in Greenberg’s interview sounded kind of like Mark Karpeles of Mt. Gox. This actually turned into a humongous objection-fest at trial (in legal jargon it’s known as habeas argumentus giganticus). Eventually a federal judge ruled that Andy Greenberg was irrelevant and could not be admitted into evidence. Harsh, imho. (Ed: Dang.)


But it wasn’t just the judge throwing shade on the tech press. “Ha ha, maybe it wouldn’t have been hearsay if it weren’t Internet journalism!” was something we actually overheard print journalists say. (“But… it did appear in print?” said Andy Greenberg sadly). The same print journalists went on to publish an article about Silk Road with a factually incorrect hed. There were never any emoji at issue in the trial. Go ahead, check. Transcripts are here. Does Margaret Sullivan read Tabs? (Ed: No.)

The end came abruptly, but it was oddly fitting: Ulbricht pulled a cyber-ontological “BUT HOW CAN YOU KNOW ANYTHING ON THE INTERNET?” / “the hackers put the files on my laptop, mom” defense. It didn’t work. The jury took a leisurely 3 1/2 hours to deliberate, which included lunch and afternoon snaxx.

Ross Ulbricht faces 30 years to life, and has murder-for-hire charges pending against him in Maryland, as well. The Maryland charges have to do with a murder he allegedly1 ordered through an undercover law enforcement agent posing as a hitman. Law enforcement then faked a grisly murder scene and sent him the photo as confirmation. You can’t make this up.

Government Exhibit 229D

Between the diary, the chat logs, the forum posts, the e-mails, the OKCupid messages, and Assistant U.S. Attorneys being forced to solemnly read out the screen names of egregious narcotics traffickers such as “Norcal420Hookup” and “Batman79,” the trial felt like a cyberpunk courtroom drama written by William Gibson and set to the tune of “Yakety Sax.” Working on this trial was grueling, harrowing, and exhausting, but I miss it already. Sees rumors that the arrested Silk Road 2.0 operator might go to trial instead of pleading out. Ugggggh I spoke too soon.

Shout-outs to my fellow field correspondents: the long-suffering Andy G, Kari Paul of VICE’s Motherboard, who got shoved by a cameraman at the final presser, Joe Mullin from Ars Technica, who got hassled by court security because his business card didn’t look good enough, Patrick Howell O’Neill of Daily Dot, Fran Berkman, and of course, Susie C. Also, thanks to Adam Klasfeld of Courthouse News Service, who was cool and great and generous with insider information on how to navigate the maze of court reporting in SDNY.


And here’s the intern tab, from guest intern Parker Higgins, usually my copyright newsletter co-author:


Yesterday Sarah appeared on Huff Post Live —- a program that is perpetually The Huffington Post‘s new thing —- alongside Andy Greenberg and the excellent Alex Winter, when the conversation turned to Napster. Like the Napster model gave way to more robust systems, will the Silk Roads of tomorrow be designed from the start to be that much harder to police, compromise, or shut down?

We don’t yet have enough history behind us to evaluate that hypothesis, and it’s certainly weakened by the fact that the second Silk Road didn’t seem to learn much from the first. But the analogy may be a good fit in more ways than one. And as, say, guns become increasingly 3D-printable, the institutional struggles over markets for illicit goods might merge with the struggles over tools that distribute information. Where Napster and the Pirate Bay have been characterized as copyright clashes, it’s easy envision them, alongside the Silk Road, as a prelude for battles over more fundamental questions of free expression and association.

Or maybe not! Maybe our information freedom wars actually culminated this week in snippy cease-and-desists over 3D printed Left Shark statuettes. If that’s the battle I have to fight, I’m ready to serve. Free Left Shark!

(Ed: I’m pretty sure Tabs has avoided mentioning Left Shark at all until now, so thanks a lot Parker.)

Today’s Song: Zhou Tonged, “End of Silk Road” (Boyz II Men – End Of The Road)

And the last word goes to Judge Katherine B. Forrest, who always gets the last word:

~I felt compelled to reveal myself to her… It was terrible. I told her I have tabs.~


Thanks to Sarah Jeong who wrote this, Susie Cagle who illustrated it, Fast Company who syndicated it on the web, Tinyletter who emailed it to you (if you have subscribed), and me who edited it and did the hard work of taking today off. I think it’s clear who the real hero is here.

1 Ok, fine, there was one more “alleged.” Don’t Brian Williams me, bro.