The Silk Road trial has ended, but it’s far from over

It’s not over yet.
It’s not over yet.
Image: AP/Elizabeth Wlliams
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AUSTIN, Texas—The story of the alleged Silk Road mastermind Ross Ulbricht, who was found guilty by a US district court in New York last month of running the black market bazaar for illicit goods, is not over yet.

“We deserve a fair trial and we are going to appeal,” Ulbricht’s mother, Lyn Ulbricht, told a packed theatre at the South by Southwest (SXSW) film festival this week following the premiere of Deep Web, a documentary that mounts a case for Ulbricht’s appeal and raises concerns over what the trial means for the future of digital privacy.

Deep Web follows the creation of the Silk Road marketplace, how the site’s operator, known as “Dread Pirate Roberts,” used bitcoin to facilitate a $1.2 billion black market, and how the FBI eventually fingered 30-year-old Ulbricht, arrested him at a San Francisco public library, and waged a winning federal case against him.

Ulbricht faces 30 years to life in prison and his sentencing is scheduled for May. But his family and other supporters are gearing up for an appeal—and they are hoping the Deep Web documentary will help bolster their case.

The film used family home videos and testimonials to portray Ulbricht as a sweet computer programmer who cares deeply about his family and friends. It tries to create a counter-narrative to the federal government’s depiction of him as a dark kingpin who hired hit men to kill his detractors.

The film also interviews the hackers and activists building the next generation of these websites, casting them as digital pioneers trying to provide a way for activists, journalists and other people to communicate over the Internet without fear of reprisal.

The film, which will appear on the EPIX network this spring, also shines a light on the still-unanswered question of how the US government cracked the underground computer network Tor to find the Silk Road servers, and what federal authorities’ actions will mean for the disappearing notion of privacy on the Internet.

“When the government can break into Tor, it shows there’s no anonymity for any of us,” said Wired journalist Andy Greenberg, who was featured throughout the film, to a burst of applause from the SXSW crowd.

The documentary also leaves viewers with unanswered questions about the future of privacy laws. Are our digital lives protected under laws protecting free speech? Do Fourth Amendment rights protecting against illegal search and seizure apply to bits of encrypted code kept in the cloud, or decentralized computer servers?

Deep Web‘s director, Alex Winter, who in 2013 directed the film Downloaded about the creators of Napster, compared the dark net to how people once regarded digital music sharing.

“Silk Road is just like the Napster story all over again,” he said, explaining how lawmakers and other people will vilify things they don’t understand. “This isn’t just a pulpy crime story, it’s about the future of technological freedom.”