Bilton rushes through Ulbricht’s trial. He does not discuss, even to debunk, the legal problems with the prosecution that Ulbricht’s lawyers have brought up. He never addresses any of the Fourth Amendment issues raised by the case, such as what Ulbricht’s team argues was an unconstitutionally broad search of the contents of his laptop. He doesn’t mention that the story he repeats uncritically about how the FBI found the Silk Road server has been declared impossible by various computer experts, or that the government has provided no verifiable corroboration for it and didn’t put the agent in question on the stand for cross-examination.
Nor does he discuss some obvious alterations in the computer records from Ulbricht’s stolen laptop—discovered by his lawyers after the trial—or the fact that someone was logging into Silk Road servers as “Dread Pirate Roberts” after Ulbricht was behind bars. When discussing the second set of alleged murders-for-hire, he lets nearly 100 pages pass before he lets the reader know that the killings never happened.
And then there’s the book’s end, which robs the cops’ whole cat-and-mouse game of any real meaning.
The conclusion calls back to the book’s opening, when a Homeland Security agent discovers an MDMA pill in some mail that a colleague blithely decided to open. (Bilton’s authorial voice sees nothing problematic in police opening any mail they want from overseas, a sad legal reality that’s key to many aspects of this story.) In the book’s final anecdote, with Ulbricht in prison for life, that same agent encounters a package with 200 such pills.
All the detailed sleuthing to find Ulbricht, all the lives upended and community destroyed, were ultimately for naught. Drugs are still sold, drugs are still shipped, drugs are still consumed. Silk Road’s encryption-and-bitcoin model is being used to traffic more illegal substances than were ever moved over Ulbricht’s website.
And they always will be. Ulbricht pioneered a new way of meeting a constant human desire, and that approach is unequivocally better, in every way, for sellers, users, and society at large. The pointless quest to arrest him did nothing to kill that innovation.
Yet the people who dedicated their time—and our money—to “taking him down” are the heroes of this narrative. Bilton’s book does what he thinks it does: It tells a harrowing and depressing story of a moral compass gone hideously askew, destroying lives. But that broken compass isn’t Ross Ulbricht’s.
I met Ross Ulbricht at Penn State in 2008, when I was an undergrad and he was working on his master’s degree. We only interacted maybe twice, and I doubt he would have any memory of me, but I remember him. When news of the Silk Road trial broke a few years ago, I was amazed that the same Ross Ulbricht was the “Dread Pirate Roberts” referenced in the federal allegations.
Ross’s sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of parole, given his age, given the nonviolent nature of his offenses, and given the corruption of the FBI agents who built the case against him, is a travesty.