Ross Ulbricht (aka Dread Pirate Roberts)
Ross Ulbricht, who is accused by the FBI of being Dread Pirate Roberts, the operator of the billion dollar drugs marketplace Silk Road.FreeRoss.org

On 13 January the trial of Ross Ulbricht, the alleged owner of illegal drugs and fake ID website Silk Road, will begin in a New York courtroom; here is everything you need to know about the case so far.

Using the pseudonym Dread Pirate Roberts, Ulbricht is accused by the FBI of running Silk Road, from which he "reaped commissions worth tens of millions of dollars". The site is claimed to have generated an estimated $1.2 billion (£780 million) in annual sales.

Ulbricht, 30, faces charges of narcotics trafficking, computer hacking, money laundering and conspiracy to traffic fraudulent IDs, with a maximum sentence of up to life in prison.

But the most serious charge is of engaging in "continuing criminal enterprise," a charge usually reserved for the leaders of organised gangs and mafia bosses; this adds at least 20 years to Ulbricht's minimum sentence (with the potential for life) and is sometimes referred to as "the kingpin status". In all, Ulbricht faces a minimum of 30 years in prison if found guilty on all charges.

Landmark case

But away from the headlines of an anonymous site on the dark web selling heroin and fake passports in return for bitcoins, Ulbricht's case could become a legal landmark in how online crimes are both investigated and punished.

Questions loom over how the FBI was able to find the servers it alleges Ulbricht ran Silk Road on, which ultimately led to his arrest. If found guilty he will go down as the first person in history to be convicted for the actions of the users of his website, rather than merely his own actions.

Called transferred intent, Ulbricht being sentenced based on the actions of Silk Road users would "put a chill on the internet," says his mother Lyn, who fronts the Free Ross campaign and has raised $335,000 in donations.

Despite his parents and 25 family friends raising $1m (£650,000), secured against their homes and life savings, Judge Katherine Forrest refused to grant bail and as a result Ulbricht has been held in a Brooklyn jail since October, 2013, with his first six weeks being spent in solitary confinement.

Dropped charges

Four murder-for-hire charges were originally part of Ulbricht's indictment, including one where he was alleged to have offered $500,000 in bitcoins to undercover police officers for the killing of his enemies.

Although there is no evidence of these murders taking place, and Ulbricht was never formally charged with planning them, they still appear in submissions to the jury who will decide his fate. It is claimed by his defence that the prosecution used the murder-for-hire allegations to successfully refuse bail on the grounds that Ulbricht is dangerous and a flight risk, despite having no criminal record.

They are now included as surplusage, or "uncharged crimes," are not formal charges, and require no proof. The defence says their inclusion in the court documents is prejudicial and irrelevant to Ulbricht's actual charges, but the judge has denied requests for them to be removed.

Finding Silk Road

Another early sticking point for the prosecution is a widespread dismissal by the online security community that the FBI's account of how it discovered Silk Road's servers is accurate.

Following months of detective work by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, including work completed by undercover agents working on the inside, Ulbricht was arrested and Silk Road shut down as he allegedly worked on the site in a public library. But the explanation of how the FBI found Silk Road's Icelandic servers has been widely discredited by technical and security experts.

The report claims a CAPTCHA page (presenting jumbled up characters for a user to enter to prove they aren't a computer) was inadvertently revealing the website's true location - something the owners worked hard to hide by hosting Silk Road on the anonymous Tor network, where so-called dark web sites can only be visited by using the location-scrambling Tor browser.

Nicholas Weaver, a researcher at the International Computer Science Institute and University of California described the FBI's account of how it discovered the site's location as "inconsistent with reality". Online security and privacy researcher Nik Cubrilovic said it was "impossible," while another IT expert, Robert Graham, dismissed the FBI's reasoning as "gibberish".

Catch-22

It has been accused that the FBI collected information on Silk Road's servers without a warrant, violating the owner's Fourth Amendment rights. But because the servers were overseas the government said no warrant was necessary, and because Ulbricht has refused to admit any connection with the servers, he is not in a position to challenge the government's methods of seizing them.

Ulbricht could claim ownership and accuse the FBI of violating his privacy by searching his servers without a warrant, but to do so would stray towards an admission of guilt.

Such is the complexity of running sites on the dark web, both the defence and prosecution teams will require highly qualified technical experts to explain how Silk Road worked and the FBI's actions.

Transferred intent

Built on these deeply complex technical foundations is a case which will centre of the idea of transferred intent: can the owner of a website be responsible for the actions of its users? Ulbricht is charged with providing a platform for drug dealing and the buying and selling of fake identification.

If Ulbricht is found guilty based on the actions of the users of Silk Road, this sets a precedent which could see online retailers like eBay responsible for everything its users sell. But a shift towards webmasters being criminally responsible for user comments, threats and hate speech appearing on their sites, such as in forums and the comment sections of news sites and YouTube videos, could have far-reaching consequences.

Dragging the implications up from the dark web and into the regular, Google-searchable internet, a guilty verdict could lead to a shakeup in how anonymity is used - and how free speech is protected - online.

Speaking in an interview published on the defences' Free Ross website in October, Lyn Ulbricht warned: "This case is going to set law going into the 21st century – it's going to impact the internet which impacts all of us – laws will be made and precedent will be set."

Bitcoin

Finally bitcoin, the peer-to-peer and bankless currency used by Silk Road, will also come under the spotlight, as its near-anonymous nature made it (or rather, the technology of cryptocurrency generally) the ideal payment method on Silk Road and the dark web.

After a year of relative stability following the collapse of major currency exchanges like Mt Gox, being implicated in a multi-billion-dollar illegal narcotics industry is not what any member of the bitcoin community will want to see.

Having been delayed three times, the trial is now due to start on 13 January and is expected to last for between four and six weeks. Ulbricht pleads not-guilty on all charges.