Monday, June 01, 2015

Ulbricht's judge punished him for political dissent; you should find this outrageous

Silk Road operator Ross Ulbricht was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Maybe this is a fair sentence for selling $200 million in illegal drugs. Or, since all the lawyers I talk to think it's excessive (worse than what even the prosecutors asked for), maybe it's within the normal range of excess in the War on Drugs. I'm not a lawyer, so I can't judge this.

But, I'm interested in the comments the judge made justifying her harsh sentence. According to Andy Greenberg at WIRED, the judge said:
“The stated purpose [of the Silk Road] was to be beyond the law. In the world you created over time, democracy didn’t exist. ... Silk Road’s birth and presence asserted that its…creator was better than the laws of this country. This is deeply troubling, terribly misguided, and very dangerous.”
This is silly on the face of it. The stated purpose of all crime is to "be beyond the law". I mean, when I go above the speed limit in my BMW, my stated purpose is to go beyond the legal limit. I'm not sure I understand the logic here.

I'm being disingenuous, of course, because I do understand. What the judge is really upset about is that Silk Road was not simply criminal but also political dissent. Ulbricht quite clearly said the laws governing drugs and marketplaces were wrong.

In other words, the judge expressly stated that she is using the power of the court in order to punish political dissent. She labeled Ulbricht and enemy of the state. This is Orwellian -- and stands against everything we believe about justice in this country. I'm a bit flabbergasted not simply that she said this, but that it has gone unremarked.

It's like punishing the vandals of the Boston Tea Party for more than mere vandalism, but for striking a revolutionary blow against the British Parliament. Or it's like throwing Rosa Parks in jail, not simply for the minor infraction of sitting in the wrong location, but for being uppity and challenging the social order. Whether or not you agree with Ulbricht's politics, they should in no way harshen his sentence.

This is especially true since the country is rapidly moving in the direction of Ulbricht's politics. Since the Silk Road case began, numerous states have legalized marijuana (which accounted for a quarter of Silk Road's sales). Presidential candidates on both the right and the left this season are remarking on the inherent unfairness of the War on Drugs, both that it incarcerates 1% of our population (a rate ten times higher than Europe), but that it's obviously racially biased. Ulbricht's politics aren't isolated -- they are part of a movement.

Many in our community go the other way, claiming that since the crimes from Manning to Hammond were political, that the law should be lenient. This is wrong, of course, but so is the idea that political actions deserve harsher sentences.

A similar problem exists with the statements made by both the judge and the prosecutors about the need to "set an example". The idea is that Ulbricht created some new model of crime, and that in order to discourage others from copying him, that the punishment needs to be especially harsh.

But think this through. What hackers do is innovate. Whether it's Aaron Swartz, Weev, Ulbricht, or a long parade of other hackers, these people challenged the system. Prosecutors had to stretch old laws to fit new actions in cyberspace -- often past their breaking point (they sometimes weren't crimes). Ulbricht clearly committed crimes, but in new ways.

Therefore, the effect of "setting an example" is this: hackers usually get extra punishments. Hackers innovate, innovation is bad. In other words, this is a symptom of the government's War on Hackers. We not only have to contend with new laws, emergency decrees, exports controls, and a vast array of rules that constrain our actions. We also have to contend with additional punishments when we break those rules.

I want to point these two things out because while lots of people are saying the punishment was excessive, I haven't seen anybody point out a discussion why. I think the War on Drugs has made us numb, since so many people get extreme punishments. But those two comments are important. That hackers deserve extra punishment for the crime of innovating seems wrong. That political dissent deserves special punishment is absolutely wrong, and should be the focus of much outrage.


Nigel said...

I agree. It is a ludicrously harsh sentence for anywhere not the United States of America.
However, for the USA it is quite mild. Normally it is 3 life sentences plus 40 years for jay walking while black, if they live long enough to see a cell.
Or am I being unfair? After all, in some countries they'd dismember him legally, if they could find him. (Which they couldn't have - all the backward crowing about OpSec failure seems to forget he was the most sought person in the world for a year.)

Ernesto said...

You're correct, of course, but I really wish I didn't keep reading otherwise smart people writing things like this:

"This ... stands against everything we believe about justice in this country."

This country has always stood for a skewed justice. There's no need to pay lip service to this notion that the government of the United States is worth reforming or saving.

Libertarian Stupidity said...

Well, genius, maybe you missed the parts where moron Ulbricht arranged to have people killed.

Not content to overlook that particularly pertinent fact, you go on to make a really lame attempt to suggest Ulbricbht was motivated by a desire to be some heroic civil disobedient. Horsehair. He was just trying to line his pockets.

Trying to suggest that attempted murder is somehow just like you speeding in your "BMW" like a spoiled brat, or that chickenshit Ulbricht is somehow like "Rosa Parks", etc etc is just plain stupid.

Real nice hero you have there. It speaks volumes about you. That chickenshit deserves every one of the years he'll spend in prison.

Anonymous said...

In Soviet America, you don't challenge the system, the system challenges you.