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Why the Silk Road Trial Should Matter to Non-Criminals

While Silk Road enabled the sale of a variety of goods and services, it was also a hotbed for the sale of illegal drugs.

Money laundering, drug trafficking and computer hacking.

Those are just some of the charges that 30-year-old Ross Ulbricht, the accused founder of the anonymous black market site Silk Road, will be facing when his trial kicks off in Lower Manhattan on Tuesday.

And although the case grabbed headlines 15 months ago because of the lurid nature of the allegations, the implications of the trial go beyond mere illegal activity. The case could reveal details about how the government monitors Internet activity, and potentially expand legal liability for commerce in contraband online.

Ulbricht, also referred to as Dread Pirate Roberts, was arrested on allegations that he created and operated Silk Road, a marketplace website on the so-called Dark Net that enabled users to anonymously buy and sell things using Bitcoin as a payment method.

While Silk Road enabled the sale of a variety of goods and services, it was also a hotbed for the sale of illegal drugs.

Ulbricht, who was also charged with running a criminal enterprise, has maintained that he is not guilty on all charges. But if he is convicted he faces 20 years to life in prison.

The outcome of his case, though, may also have broader implications for Internet freedoms and businesses.

Surveillance and anonymity

Ulbright's case could be a huge wake-up call for people using the Dark Web under the impression their activity is anonymous, and could also shed light on how the government tracks people in the shadier corners of the Internet.

"What's most interesting about this case is that it is the first case in its enormity involving the Dark Net and it's going to be a wake-up for anyone using the Dark Net thinking they have anonymity. You cannot remain anonymous on the Internet," said Darren R. Hayes, assistant professor and director of cybersecurity at Pace University.

One of the most controversial issues regarding the case has been how exactly the FBI was able to track down the server that hosted the Silk Road website. This is being called into question because the server was used to produce evidence for the trial. Ulbricht denies that the server even belongs to him.

The feds claim that they were able to trace the server via a captcha prompt on Silk Road's website that leaked the site's IP address, which led to its location in Iceland. However, the defense claims this explanation doesn't add up and supporters of Ulbricht are quick to accuse the government of using a possibly illegal method to locate Silk Road, which they claim would violate Ulbricht's Fourth Amendment rights. However, since Ulbricht is denying ownership of the server, the judge declined to entertain this notion.

Regardless, the trial should give more insight to just how the government is watching behind the scenes.

"From a tech perspective it's going to be very interesting because we are going to learn in more detail about how the government is really able to track people on the Dark Net," Hayes said.

A new precedent for online businesses

Beyond possibly revealing how the government may be tracking people, the case could also set a precedent for cases against other website operators.

"The main issue, the main Internet freedom issue is at what point are website operators accountable for what happens on their site? In Silk Road, it's an easy case because they were catering to illegal activity. But what is interesting is that you start with easy cases and then you start to go towards some of the borderline cases," said Hanni Fakhoury, an attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The government could use this case as a way to pursue other online operators who provide a platform that might be used for illegal activity, and that can get tricky, he said.

"There has to be some question about where does the line get drawn. And the line drawing is done by prosecutors who are making judgement calls about what site operators are criminally responsible for what is happening on their site," Fakhoury said.

But it's more likely that a conviction would have more immediate impact on Dark Net website operators, Hayes said.

"If this is successful, we will see more Dark Net cases come to trial," Hayes said. "This could just be the beginning."