The Internet is Real

Ross Ulbricht, the Silk Road trial, and the quasi-fictions of internet culture.

The internet is often thought of as reality through the looking glass. Of course there were hoaxes, counterfeits, and fake identities before screens, but the way we shape and present ourselves online makes personal authenticity an everyday concern. Whether it is digital white lies, like photoshopping out dark circles under your eyes before posting a new profile picture, to secret lives — hidden from your spouses and children, hidden from employers — the internet gives us the potential to augment and complicate our identities very easily.

On Tuesday, I attended court for the Silk Road trial closing arguments and watched the defense struggle to carve out a plausible defense of their client. All of the blended fiction and real elements of life on the internet were yanked from the dark mirror and presented as evidence to a courtroom full of people who left their digital devices with security at check through. It is entirely reasonable to believe Ross Ulbricht was a pretty nice, normal seeming guy and also Dread Pirate Roberts, the Silk Road kingpin. That’s not to say he got carried away either. Silk Road was an ideological anarcho-capitalist enterprise. (One of the exhibits, notes on daily operation of the deep web black market included this handshake: “read any good books lately?” “anything by rothbard.”)

The jury found Ulbricht guilty of all seven charges, including the kingpin statute. He faces another charge for murder-for-hire by a court in Maryland. The prosecution had heaps of evidence — among the most damning, millions of dollars in Bitcoin in a wallet on his laptop that can be traced to Silk Road. There was also a journal — containing years of logs about his personal and professional life that could easily be connected to items in his Gmail account. The journal nailed him down as the Silk Road boss, while it also made him a more sympathetic character. A pretty common theme in his journal was how much he hates lying to people. The FBI grabbed Ulbricht’s laptop before they cuffed him (in the science fiction section of the San Francisco Public Library). If he only closed his laptop it would be a brick.

It’s the murder-for-hire story that ratchets this story beyond the imagination of our most forward thinking science fiction authors. Ulbricht requested hits with the manners of a pleasant customer service representative. He was LARPing kingpin while he was the kingpin, and, oh yeah, all those hits were hoaxes anyway. The first was a setup by the DEA, with staged photos of a bloody scene sent to confirm. The next five appear to be a catfishing scheme by someone who may or may not have been part of the Hells Angels.

Dread Pirate Roberts chatting with someone he believed to be part of Hells Angels.

The judge denied the defense’s request to exclude screenshots as evidence, but they could challenge the authenticity of evidence item by item. Consequently, the defense presented the theory that while Ulbricht downloaded a copy of the Colbert Report through BitTorrent on the library’s wifi, the *real* Dread Pirate Roberts framed him with malware, planted all the evidence — the journal, everything. Ulbricht was the fall guy, they argued, because everything on the “internet is not what it seems…you can create an entire fictional episode and you can sit here and not tell if it was real or not. Not without a reason of doubt.” None of the evidence could be trusted or authenticated because as digital files, anything can be “distorted, edited, moved and manipulated.” The “entire process lacks integrity.”

The defense does not deny he created Silk Road. But they maintained he passed it off. Sarah Jeong, who, with illustrator Susie Cagle, has provided indispensable coverage of the trial for Forbes, explained, it seems “the defense decided that the most reasonable doubt they could shake out of this case would come out of the margins of the confused, messy investigation that the government embarked on — an investigation that included searching Mark Karpeles’s e-mail account, and performing language comparisons between libertarian bloggers and DPR’s forum postings.”

In one of the chats, Ulbricht confessed to an associate at Silk Road that he told two friends about his project. Fearing it would get out, he told them both that he had since sold the site. The user, “Variety Jones,” suggested he take on the name “Dread Pirate Roberts,” after the pseudonym that is passed through a succession of characters in the Princess Bride, each retiring after rotating the name to the next Dread Pirate Roberts. A friend of Ulbricht’s confirmed to the court that he was told the site had been sold and someone else was running it. In the closing arguments, the defense attorney pointed to this witness as somehow more reliable that words of unknown people masked by screen names. That was a “live witness. Not a document on a computer that anyone can alter at any time.”

But some evidence did come from the “IRL” world. The FBI found a crumbled piece of paper with elements from the Silk Road site. Regardless, the case and its outcome shows that not everything digital can be spoofed or duped —screen elements can be tethered to reality.

The conventional wisdom of the internet has always been “nobody knows you’re a dog.” Casual users are reasonably skeptical of online activity by way of stories about Manti Te’o and experiences receiving suspicious looking emails sent from someone with a cousin’s name requesting money. But Ulbricht’s capture was the digital equivalent of getting caught redhanded — his screen open to a Silk Road “mastermind” page with detailed logs. The case suggests there may be a shift in the balance, a new understanding that not everything digital is to be disbelieved.