In 2015, Ross Ulbricht, an Austin native, was given two life sentences plus 40 years in federal prison for his role in creating the infamous website The Silk Road. Now his mother, Lyn Ulbricht, is speaking up for her son as he resides in federal prison in Colorado.
On Friday afternoon, Lyn Ulbricht spoke to a packed UT lecture hall as part of the Molotov Seminars, a lecture series started by UT graduate student Abhranil Das. Lyn Ulbricht spoke about how her son and his legal team are petitioning the Supreme Court, arguing that his Fourth and Sixth Amendment rights were violated during her son’s investigation and trial.
“They have 20th century law and they’re trying to shoehorn it into the 21st century, in the digital world, and it doesn’t fit,” Lyn Ulbricht said.
Ross Ulbricht created The Silk Road in 2011 intending to give people the experience of the free market and libertarian economics on what is known as the “Dark Web.” This part of the web runs on an encrypted network capable of hiding IP addresses, allowing people to buy and sell goods, both legal and illegal, anonymously using Bitcoin.
“The intention was to protect the privacy and the anonymity of users on a website and allow people this exchange without government oversight,” Lyn Ulbricht said.
The use of cryptocurrency would have been attractive to someone who holds libertarian views such as Ross Ulbricht, said Angela Walch, research fellow at the Centre for Blockchain Technologies at University College London.
“The reason (Bitcoin) was popular for things like the Dark Web is (because) it’s anonymous,” Walch said. “So when you buy a bitcoin you don’t have to tell a bank or anyone who you are.”
In 2014, Ross Ulbricht was indicted in New York on four counts: narcotics trafficking conspiracy, continuing criminal enterprise, computer hacking conspiracy and money laundering conspiracy.
Ross Ulbricht’s legal team sent their petition to the Supreme Court last year and are awaiting a response. The team is arguing that the third-party doctrine and the original judge’s sentencing process violated Ross Ulbricht’s fundamental rights.
The third-party doctrine, established in the 1970s, enabled law enforcement to obtain Ross Ulbricht’s Internet traffic information and follow his web activity. The doctrine states if information is held by third parties such as cell phones or emails, law enforcement can obtain it without a warrant.
His legal team is now arguing that the third-party doctrine has become outdated with the introduction of new technology and that it limits the scope of Fourth Amendment rights, which serve to protect people from arbitrary searches and seizures.
The legal team is also arguing that U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest violated Ross Ulbricht’s Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury because she used uncharged crimes to determine his sentence.
UT law student Brittney Justice, who attended Friday’s event, said she is currently discussing electronic surveillance by the government in her writing seminar class.
“I think our generation, since we’re starting to recognize the issues that big government (plays) when it comes to our online freedom to just surf the internet, is going to impact the way that the Supreme Court and the judiciaries start to rule on issues like this,” Justice said.
Lyn Ulbricht said her full-time work is now primarily focused on her son.
“I cannot let Ross die in (prison),” Lyn Ulbricht said. “As long as I have any life in me, I will fight for him to be free. I just can’t let him die in there. It’s just wrong.”