Joe Mullin Gets It All Wrong On Ulbricht, Silk Road, Activism

Joe Mullin of Ars Technica wrote that there is an “intellectual paradox” when supporters of Ross Ulbricht, founder of the online market Silk Road, claim he is both innocent and an activist. His supporters, specifically documentary film maker Andy Greenberg, don’t ask even “one hard question.” The link between Ulbricht, the Silk Road and privacy activists is “never really explained.” Media coverage of the Ulbricht affair is “glaring disingenuousness” for linking it with anti-drug activists, such as Neil Franklin of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). Ulbricht as an activist “isn’t just wrong, it’s insulting to activists.” Ulbricht’s “idealism is tainted, not just by the money he collected from drug dealers, but by the fact that he hid his actions and lied to everyone around him.”

Many of the comments are as bad as the article. Indeed, Mullin’s authoritarianism – “changing the law is harder than just ignoring it” – seems to draw out those who are morally backward despite being technologically forward.

Mullin describes himself as having “covered the intersection of law and technology – including the world’s biggest copyright and patent battles – for a number of years.” No doubt he is well aware of the presumption of innocence, then. He quotes Lyn Ulbricht, Ross Ulbricht’s mother, “I don’t know what’s happened to the presumption of innocence in this country.” It isn’t an entirely unfamiliar concept, so it shouldn’t be strange if supporters of Ulbricht assert his innocence and his activism simultaneously.

To assert that Ulbricht is innocent is not to assert that he did not participate in the Silk Road. It’s an assertion that the state failed to prove his guilt. Further, it’s an assertion that he is innocent of wrongdoing regardless of criminality. There is no contradiction here, no “intellectual paradox.” We called for freedom and asserted the innocence of Nelson Mandela, despite his factual participation in so-called terrorist attacks. Mandela was not on trial. Ulbricht was not on trial. The system is perpetually on trial, the state and its laws are perpetually on trial, when the system is oppressive.

I find it bizarre that anyone who follows both technology and the law can’t see how Silk Road, Ulbricht, and prohibition in general are also “privacy issues.” What you do with your own body is at the very core of privacy rights. Not only that, but the drug war has been the greatest source of privacy violations since its inception. Even today, prohibition is used as a pretext to expand surveillance programs second not even to terrorism. Ars routinely reports on Stingrays, on warrants, on invasive GPS surveillance. In most cases these police abuses involve drugs. Drugs have been the main pretext for privacy violations for decades.

Ulbricht as an activist isn’t insulting. What is insulting to activists is the idea that the only legitimate form of resistance is petitioning legislators, begging the masters, for change. The assertion that a man like Neil Franklin is somehow more legitimate than Ross Ulbricht is insulting. Ulbricht may have profited from his drug market, but Franklin was a police officer. This means Franklin was a man who, despite whatever he is doing now to make amends, spent most of his life ruining the lives of others. If we talk about profiting from evil, we should also call out these former cops who suddenly become activists at the ends of their careers. Ulbricht literally risked his own life. Now Ulbricht will spend the rest of that life in jail. Men like Franklin, old cops who have found new careers railing against prohibition, are political opportunists who have risked nothing.

I don’t expect Mullin to get it. I doubt he has ever committed a crime in his life. He has no idea what people like Ulbricht risk. It’s a risk not only for their own personal beliefs, but a practical risk. It’s the kind of risk that negates a stable future, a future studying liberal arts at Berkeley and writing for magazines, with the ever-present dread, the tightrope act of trying to make a living, plan a future, and evade the world’s most powerful police state.

The difference between Mullin and Ulbricht is the difference between the Northern slavery reformist, the milquetoast who wishes to see slavery abolished gradually within the bounds of the law, versus the escaped slave, the abolitionist, who risks his life running a stop on the Underground Railroad. And the the reformist historically had – they still do have as we see here – the fucking nerve to criticize the abolitionist, the escaped slave who defies the law, because the abolitionist might exploit the slave system at the same time.

No, Mullin has no clue about the reality of life for drug users. He says, “real harm reduction is being done in homeless shelters, methadone clinics, and needle exchanges,” and “they publish papers, they practice medicine, they offer therapy, they testify to legislators—and the war continues.” Mullin has never been in a homeless shelter, nor has he known anyone that has, otherwise he would realize these are bastions of conservative moralism and profiteering. They don’t hesitate to put drug users on the streets. He doesn’t seem to be aware that those who do practice medicine and are interested in harm reduction are stifled by the laws and bureaucracy of medical practice itself.

The casualties of the drug war are its soldiers. These are the men and women who fight a literal war on a daily basis against drug enforcement police. They’re not ex-cops who fly to the White House to chat with politicians. In staying with the drug war analogy, this kind of reformist is a war profiteer. The people who actually participate in the drug war are drug dealers and drug users. These are the individuals who have built entire lifestyles around defying drug laws. They don’t do it as an intellectual exercise. They do it because that’s how they live. Few had the opportunity for a Berkeley education or a big police pension.

Yes, drug dealers and users hide. They lie. Just like Ulbricht did. You cannot defy the drug laws of the United States openly. Mullin’s claim that Ulbricht lost legitimacy because he hid his involvement in the world’s largest online drug market is absurd. There is no way to engage in this kind of resistance openly.

Maybe Mullin doesn’t get that. Silver spoon activists don’t fear reprisals from law enforcement. It isn’t real to them. They don’t worry about having their doors kicked in at midnight. In fact, they share almost nothing in common with actual victims of the drug war. It’s not really their struggle at all, regardless of what interest they have in it or what steps they take to end prohibition.

Mullin wraps up with a hypothetical drug market; “running my hypothetical street market doesn’t mean I am striking a nail in the coffin of the drug war. Likely, it’s just the opposite. A market designed to hide from the law is a great excuse for law enforcement to double down on the severity of enforcement and punishment.”

This illustrates just how far removed from the struggle Mullin is. There is an underclass of Americans who, due to having previous drug convictions, cannot find employment. Drug sales become one of the only viable, peaceful alternatives they have. There is also an underclass of people who, also due to the inflationary prices of drugs due drug war, are trapped in cycles of addiction and poverty. They don’t hide from the law as a luxury, but as a necessity. Any tool that allows them to evade repressive drug laws is a boon. The Silk Road didn’t have to change any laws. And saying “it just makes the laws worse” is classic victim blaming. It’s the Northern reformist telling the slave, “don’t resist, it just makes the master angry.”


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