Lyn Ulbricht has temporarily relocated from Austin, Texas, to be near her son, Ross Ulbricht, who is currently being held in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan. He was given two life sentences for nonviolent charges in federal district court last May for his alleged role in running the Silk Road website under the alias Dread Pirate Roberts. In October 2013, he was arrested by federal agents at the Glen Park Branch Library in San Francisco, where he had been living for a year. Ulbricht’s lawyer plans to file an appeal of trial and pretrial issues, along with what many consider to be a harsh sentence, in mid-December 2015. In the meantime, Ulbricht’s intrepid mother is making media appearances, fundraising, and educating the public about the issues in her son’s case. She also appears in the documentary Deep Web, which explores the development of the anonymous web and how advocates for encrypted web sites are fighting government control of digital rights. Deep Web, directed by Alex Winter (of the Bill & Ted movies) premieres on iTunes and VOD on September 1st.
TBI: The Silk Road website became the largest drug-trafficking portal on the web, but you have said that Ross’s trial was about much more than the drug war.
LU: I have said many times that I am not here to defend Silk Road or drug use. I know that Ross did not create the site as a drug site. He is a free-market libertarian who believes people have a right to do with their bodies what they want. I know his intentions. We often discussed all these things before he was arrested. He created a video game to give players the experience of a free market. He gave lectures on it at University of Texas. He considered doing a YouTube course on it. That is his passion. Ross got really interested when Ron Paul ran for president. Silk Road has unsavory aspects, but the full picture of what it is was not presented to the jury. Even more dangerous than a website that people use to sell and buy drugs are certain precedents set at the trial that I find very concerning. While we are all distracted, the government is encroaching on our protections and freedoms.
TBI: How is the government encroaching?
LU: Even though other courts have rejected this, the judge accepted digital evidence of Ross’s involvement in the Silk Road website as real evidence. You really don’t know who is the source of the evidence because digital material is so easy to fabricate. A mortgage company won’t take a screenshot as a bank statement, for instance. But digital evidence was accepted as more than 90% of the government’s evidence, and our lawyer, Josh Dratel, objected all the way through, basing it on other court decisions. So there is a precedent from this trial now that the government can use easily Photoshopped digital evidence to put someone in prison for life. It doesn’t take imagination to see that if you want to get somebody, it wouldn’t be that hard using digital material. The government also took Ross’s laptop with only a general warrant, which is a huge question going forward about whether that was legally done. If allowed to stand, this precedent weakens our Fourth Amendment protections. There is also the issue of how they found the Silk Road server—whether they hacked in without a warrant. This was never brought before an examining court.
TBI: You have called his life sentence draconian.
LU: I understand you have to protect society from violent people. But life without parole for all non-violent charges, for a non-violent person, with no priors? Ross was 26 when he created this thing. Aging changes people. It’s not like he is going to come out in 20 years, at age 51, and build another Silk Road. He’s a pretty quick learner, and he wouldn’t do it again. He would find another way, a legal way, to communicate free markets. Giving him life was making him the poster boy for the drug war. He is paying the price for all of the drug lords that they haven’t arrested. To me that isn’t what our justice system is about. You should be sentenced as an individual. You shouldn’t be shouldering a burden for other people. But the drug war itself is not about drugs; it is about government expansion “for our safety” or whatever. It’s been going on for 40 years, and it doesn’t stop anyone from doing drugs. Our prisons are bursting at the seams with nonviolent people like Ross because of the drug war, and lives are being destroyed.
TBI: What do you hope the appeal will accomplish?
LU: Many things are possible because they are appealing pretrial issues, the trial itself, and the sentencing. The legal team asked for an extension because of extensive corruption of the government investigators, who may have tainted the evidence. These agents had the administrative ability to do anything they wanted to on the Silk Road site while they were investigating. They could commandeer accounts, including Dread Pirate Roberts’s. They could change PIN numbers and access bank accounts, so there is no way of knowing if their evidence was legitimate. If they find that the general warrant was deficient for seizing his laptop, that will impact whether the laptop could be admissible, and we may have a retrial. The idea of going back to trial is so overwhelming, I can’t think about it.
TBI: OK, we can take a step back. What was Ross like as a kid?
LU: He was a great kid, a wonderful person to raise—sweet, peaceful, easygoing, compassionate. I know I am his mother, but there are 100 letters by people who know him personally on our site, freeross.org, that were submitted to the judge asking her to give him the minimum sentence. Then I read articles calling him a savage king pin, and it is upsetting. He is the opposite of that.
TBI: You’ve become more than just the defendant’s mom. You’re like his spokeswoman and chief activist.
LU: I joke that finally my big mouth is paying off. I have a journalism and freelance-writing background, and now I am doing more writing and public appearances. I was just speaking about Ross at a festival of libertarians called the Porcupine Freedom Festival, which is part of the Free State Project, where they encourage people to move to New Hampshire. I’ve been on Reason magazine’s show; I went on Huff Post and Fox; and I’ve been on panels with Alex Winter, whose film Deep Web was at SXSW. I’ll be going to Prague this fall to speak at a conference and then to different cities in Poland. Polish people know what tyranny is! I’m hoping people will see how important this case is and that it is beyond one man and one website.