USA Today reported that US District Judge Katherine Forrest sentenced Ross Ulbricht (31) the creator of Silk Road, a worldwide Internet (darknet) emporium for illegal drug buys, to two life sentences and “three lesser prison sentences” (2).
The sentence was the “maximum punishment called for under federal sentencing guidelines and recommended by a government probation report.”
All transactions for Silk Road were paid with bitcoins (3). This currency exchange made the website successful since anonymity was afforded its patrons. According to USA Today, Ulbricht made roughly $18 million in bitcoins from the website.
The father of a young man who died from heroin purchased on Silk Road told the court that the website allowed buyers and sellers to meet without the ordinary obstacles drug dealers and buyers face. Silk Road afforded his son easy access to a drug he ordinarily didn’t have easy access to.
USA Today reported that billions of dollars were exchanged in the online drug deals. More than just heroin, LSD, cocaine and methamphetamines were sold, other illegal items, such as fake IDs and even computer hacking programs were available for purchase.
Department of Justice Targets Reason.com
In White’s analysis of the DOJ’s misuse of the Grand Jury’s subpoena, he states that the DOJ targeted the website Reason.com, known as “a leading libertarian website whose clever writing is eclipsed only by the blowhard stupidity of its commenting peanut gallery.”
White asks the question that many have echoed, “Why is the government using its vast power to identify these obnoxious asshats, and not the other tens of thousands who plague the Internet?”
He goes on to answer his own question by saying, “Because these twerps mouthed off about a judge.” Having obtained a copy of the subpoena, White states that, “The subpoena commands Reason to provide the grand jury ‘any and all identifying information’ Reason has about participants in what the subpoena calls a ‘chat’.”
The chat, White explains was nothing more than the “comment thread from the May 31, 2015” website article that detailed Ulbricht’s trial and his subsequent sentence. As to be expected on the Internet, commenters of the article were very vocal in their opinions about the trial and the sentencing. They commented in a “rough manner.”
The subpoena demanded that Reason.com “produce any identifying information” on the commenters.” White points out that most of the comments were the typical diatribe that went like:
–> AgammamonI5.31.15 @ lO:47AMltt: “Its judges like these that should be taken out back and shot.”
–> croakerI6.1.15 @ 11:06AMltt: “Why waste ammunition? Wood chippers get the message across clearly. Especially if you feed them in feet first.”
–> Cloudbusterl6.l.15 @ 2:40PMIIt: “Why do it out back? Shoot them out front, on the steps of the courthouse.”
And other similar comments that most people simply ignore and chalk up to the same type of person trying to appear clever. However, according to White, the subpoena specifically stated that it sought, “evidence in regard to an alleged violation of: Title 18, United States Code, Section 875.” This references the federal law for interstate threats and prohibits threats against a Federal judge.
The Supreme Court recently ruled on this statute and according to White’s article, “the Court decided that to be a ‘true threat’ in violation of Section 875, the speaker must have some level of knowledge or intent that the hearer will take the threat seriously.”
White examines whether or not the threats made by the commenters on Reason.com were genuine threats. He asks that if commenters didn’t make real threats, then did the US Attorney’s Office have the power to request such a subpoena from the grand jury that demanded the commenters be identified.
Perhaps more importantly is his third question: “…even if the U.S. Attorney’s Office has the power, should it have that power?”
White concludes that, “True threat analysis always examines context. Here, the context strongly weighs in favor of hyperbole. The comments are on the Internet, a wretched hive of scum, villainy, and gaseous smack talk.”
He further points out that political blogs, such as Reason.com are plagued with “a group of commenters who think such trash talk is amusing.”
First Amendment Under Attack?
Michael Krieger of Liberty BlitzKrieg writes that “The D.C. court implies that we can trust federal prosecutors to use the grand jury power to pierce the anonymity of political firebrands even when their rhetoric is clearly protected by the First Amendment” (4).
Krieger writes that such subpoena power is likely to be “exercised on behalf of establishment political figures, not outsiders.” He states that it’s “much more likely to be exercised” whenever the “person being trash-talked is a powerful federal judge in the district of that U.S. Attorney’s Office, a judge that the office must appear before every damned day.”
Both writers point to the context and how the commenters were the typical type of blowhards that enjoy trash talking on such websites. Each writer concludes that in the case of the Reason.com article commenters, no threat ever existed to justify the Grand Jury’s subpoena.
References & Image Credits:
(1) DoJ Uses Grand Jury Subpeona to Identify Anonymous Commenters
(2) USA Today
(3) TSW: Rise of Ransomware Crypto Virus
(4) Liberty Blitzkrieg