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A Web of Crime: The Internet’s Growing Challenge to the US Legal System

On February 4, 2016, the US government won an unprecedented courtroom victory: it successfully prosecuted and imprisoned Ross Ulbricht, the founder of a website called “The Silk Road.” The Silk Road was an online marketplace that allowed people to anonymously sell and purchase virtually any drug, weapon, hit man, or illegal commodity. Law enforcement had spent years trekking through tricky investigation laws and technological challenges in order to finally prosecute Ulbricht and shut down Silk Road. While convicting the Silk Road’s founder is an impressive achievement, it may not be a harbinger of success in the federal government’s long crusade to regulate the illicit economy. One enemy combatant is gone, but unless the US government finds a way to both adapt criminal law and update and strengthen efforts against cybercrime, outlaws will continue to appear across the Internet, stronger than ever.

The Silk Road case proved to be a hydra: soon after the ruling, new versions of the site were spawning all over the Internet, more decentralized and resistant to regulation than ever before. With countless criminals discovering the convenience of moving their business online, the government is hard pressed for a way to still maintain the law without compromising Internet freedom. This is a particularly difficult balancing act, since the Internet came of age as a cherished forum of free expression and unregulated human interactions. But in the early 2000’s, the open conditions of the web became ripe for the advent of cybercrime. The Internet’s unfettered communication services became a safe way of trading illegal goods and services, and, within a decade, the cybercrime industry became a booming international economy. Through massive illegal trading and pirating websites like Pirate Bay, Torrenting sites, Silk Road, and many others, slipping past the law became easier and more frequent. The anonymity and practicality of the Internet, once established with earnest intentions, now helped criminals avoid the obstacles that come from physical trade and interaction. In just a couple decades, online cybercrime boomed to an economy of $114 billion – and its growth is far from over.

In 2013, the US government began to crack down on the Internet’s illegal trading industries, beginning with the Silk Road. This particular website was accessed through a server dubbed the “dark web,” whereby users could access illegal sites while masking their IP address and avoiding accountability. Illegal items would be purchased with bitcoin – an Internet currency of which the government both has little understanding and little ability to trace and regulate. To any observer, prosecuting its founder should be simple: he started and facilitated a billion dollar drug trading industry and engaged in numerous illegal activities from laundering to theft along the way. But it was far from simple, and the government’s struggle during the prosecution and investigation sheds light on the great difficulties of controlling cybercrime.

"The government faces a system of laws poorly adapted to the changing landscape of cybercrime."

For one, the government faces a system of laws poorly adapted to the changing landscape of cybercrime. Consider the arduous process of even identifying web-based transgressions. Online criminals are often immensely difficult to detect, and it took the FBI over two years to find Ulbricht, the most involved user of the largest illegal site. The government had to trek through a thick jungle of privacy laws and limitations on the gathering of evidence. Because of the broadness of digital privacy laws and many individuals’ misunderstanding of the nuances of the tech world, the defense could hide behind obscure objections, abstruse technology, and claims of illegal obtaining of evidence. Moreover, the court also found great difficulty adapting old laws to new forms of currency. How should bitcoin be treated – currency, a bond, a commodity? How is it to be applied to the law? Even when involved individuals are prosecuted, shutting down the sites bring a whole other whirlwind of challenges. FBI, already severely underfunded with respect to online legal enforcement, is constantly up against the Internet’s greatest tech minds. The government simply lacks the resources to keep up, and in failing to create an Internet infrastructure suitable to regulation, has allowed the industry to continue to boom.

As of now, many law enforcers and legislators lack the information and understanding necessary to staying ahead of cybercriminals. For one, within the US, policymakers have reached little consensus on a proper definition of cybercrime. These policymakers are starved for concrete statistical data on such crimes, and consequently, states vary greatly on how they conceive of and combat cybercrime. Pair this when a general inability to adapt traditional criminal investigations to the digital world, and the Internet becomes all the more safe for anonymous criminals. These difficulties in defining the new landscape of crime pose challenges to effective control of such crime. Since cybercrime laws use vague an indistinct language, courts find difficulty in interpreting law in cybercriminal cases. Law enforcers find difficulty in collecting digital evidence, moving beyond encrypted sources, and outperforming some the nation’s greatest tech minds. If the government wants to be effective in controlling the new world of crime, it needs to start employing more widespread education programs across courts, legislators, and law enforcement alike. Perhaps when this is paired with increased funding and better-adapted criminal law, the government can start to crack down on cybercrime with similar efficacy to its battle against traditional crime.

The government was indeed successful in punishing Robert Ulbricht. His closing words struck the many that were tuning into the trial: “Silk Road was supposed to be about giving people the freedom to make their own choices, to pursue their own happiness.” And while the government had sentenced the international criminal, they too faced a lifetime sentence of illegal trade and commerce bubbling right under their noses. Throughout modern history, the law has generally always been able to catch up to those with an illegal leg up, but the Internet poses an exciting dilemma. It seems that, more and more, this online dilemma is turning into an ominous reality.

About the Author

Micah Rosen '19 is concentrating in Political Science and Philosophy. He is a US Staff Writer at BPR.