AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The Silk Road was an online, anonymous black market for buying and selling illegal drugs. The FBI shut it down in 2013. Now the man accused of running that billion-dollar market is on trial. Proceedings began earlier this week. Wired reporter Andy Greenberg says it's the most significant case of its kind. He was in the Manhattan federal court room all week and joins us now from our bureau in New York. Andy, welcome to the program.
ANDY GREENBERG: Thanks for having me on.
CORNISH: OK, so the question at the heart of this thing is whether Ross Ulbricht is actually the mastermind of Silk Road - right? - whether he was indeed the one operating under the pseudonym Dread Pirate Roberts. Help us understand the case that the prosecution is making here.
GREENBERG: Well, the prosecution says they literally caught Ross Ulbricht red-handed. They swooped in on him in the public library in San Francisco with his fingers on the keyboard as he was logged into the Silk Road on this page called Masterminds. And if that weren't damning enough, they say they also found on that laptop a kind of daily log and journal that detailed years of planning and then administering the creation and management of the Silk Road.
CORNISH: So what are the exact charges?
GREENBERG: There are quite a lot of charges. He's facing conspiracy to traffic narcotics, to launder money, to sell fake IDs, to sell hacking tools - which I think surprised a lot of people who followed the Silk Road.
And then he faces, as well, this so-called kingpin charge, what's technically called a continuing criminal enterprise, and that's something that's usually reserved for Mafia Dons and drug cartel leaders. So the prosecution is framing this as a massive drug conspiracy - not just a kind of backwater website, but a true drug empire.
CORNISH: And after many months, we're finally hearing from the defense - right? Fundamentally, what are they arguing for Ross Ulbricht?
GREENBERG: In their opening argument, the defense surprised everyone, I think, by first admitting that Ross Ulbricht created the Silk Road. But as they framed it, Ulbricht, they said, created the site only as a kind of economic experiment - this anonymous website running on the Tor anonymity network, using the cryptocurrency bitcoins to hide people's identities, essentially allowing people to buy and sell anything just to see what would happen.
But according to the defense, after just a few months, he gave the site up. He found it too stressful. And it was taken over by someone who would become the Dread Pirate Roberts. And then, of course, they have to argue - to make sense of this sort of caught-red-handed situation - that he was lured back in by the real operators of the Silk Road and framed.
CORNISH: So at one point you actually did do an interview with Dread Pirate Roberts, whoever that was. This was before the trial. Obviously, this is an anonymous figure, but what did you learn from him?
GREENBERG: Right. So I interviewed the Dread Pirate Roberts in 2013 over the Silk Road's anonymous messaging system. One of the things that's now become relevant again, I think, is that he told me that he didn't actually create the Silk Road. The Dread Pirate Roberts said that he actually acquired the site; that he paid the site's creator to take it over. And now that does seem to sync up with what the defense in Ross Ulbricht's case is saying - that Ross Ulbricht created the Silk Road but that he wasn't the Dread Pirate Roberts.
CORNISH: You describe this earlier as an economic experiment. And it gets to the heart of why people are paying attention to this case - right? I mean, there seems to be more at stake here than just what happens to this one particular guy.
GREENBERG: Yeah, the Silk Road was more than just a kind of cyber-criminal scheme. There were limitations to what you could sell on the site. The Dread Pirate Roberts had strict rules about only victimless contraband being sold. So, in a sense, this trial will be a test of how much the government can reach into these corners of the Internet where anarchists and libertarians have tried to carve out a kind of regulation free-trade zone.
CORNISH: That's Andy Greenberg of Wired. Andy, thanks so much for talking with us.
GREENBERG: Glad to be here. Thanks.
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