Good or evil? The ethics of Free Ross DAO

The text introduces Free Ross DAO as a DAO that not only wants to mobilize money but wants to influence legal structures. Free Ross DAO comprises two ethical questions: 1) Should we have free and anonymous online markets? And 2) Should a DAO be able to influence legal structures?

The ethics of Free Ross DAO

Can a DAO free a prisoner? And influence politics and the law? Free Ross DAO wants to do exactly this. The DAO has three main goals: 1) share Ross Ulbricht’s work with the world, 2) free him from prison, and 3) fight injustice and advance prison reform.

We’ve seen DAOs buying NFT art and mobilizing huge sums of money before, but what is new is that a DAO wants to influence legal structures and questions a decision made by legal authorities.

Free Ross DAO wants to free Ross Ulbricht, who suffers from an unjust sentence to spend the rest of his life in prison. But they apply Ross' issue to a broader problem of injustice in the law system and want to use the new network effects of DAOs to work with allied groups following a similar mission.

What is Free Ross DAO?

The DAO was founded by members of the PleasrDAO community in December 2021, right after Ross Ulbricht announced his “Genesis Collection” NFT auction on SuperRare. The DAO raised over $12,5 million in no time and successfully purchased the NFT for $6.2 million. Contributors to the auction received $FREE tokens representing a fraction of the NFT and membership in the DAO. Free Ross DAO wants to help Ross’ family with their longtime efforts to free Ross. But they are already doing something right now: They support prisoners financially to meet their families.

Who are the members of Free Ross DAO? Some of the contributors have suffered from the American law system and have spent years in prison themselves. They have experienced an unfair system, and they see Ross as one example of many cases of wrongful incarceration. And then there are the people coming from the crypto point of view, who are libertarians and see in the case of Ross Ulbricht the repression of freedom and right to encryption. Many people came to crypto and Bitcoin through Silk Road.

Two versions of reality

At the age of 29, Ross Ulbricht was sentenced to two lifetimes plus 40 years in prison. The US law enforcement thought that was a just sentence for creating Silk Road, an anonymous online marketplace that quickly evolved into a drug marketplace. Ross used a technology that combined Tor and Bitcoin to ensure the privacy of sellers and buyers. The police shut the website down in 2013 and convicted Ulbricht of conspiracy to launder money, computer hacking, narcotics trafficking, and running a criminal enterprise.

Ross would say he didn’t create Silk Road as a marketplace for illegal business. Instead, he was motivated by the libertarian belief in a free market and online privacy and encryption. The philosophy of Ludwig van Mises and the economic thoughts of the Austrian School influenced Ross into proclaiming the power of a free market and limited governance. Silk Road was the incarnation of an anarcho-capitalistic philosophy and a technique to get around the state’s regulations. But Ross and the movement around him see Silk Road as a representation of the human right to privacy, and we need encryption to ensure this human right in the digital era.

The US government doesn’t share Ross’ libertarian beliefs. In their eyes, he did nothing but violate the law, using forbidden technology to pave the way for criminal activities.  They demonize the technology. With the sentence of two lifetimes plus 40 years, the government set a clear sign: They won’t easily tolerate attempts to enable online freedom.

With the goal to free Ross, the DAO also indirectly advocates for anonymous trade and freedom of commerce because this is what Silk Road (the reason why Ross Ulbricht is in prison) was created for.

Who is right, Ross or the police? Should we, independently from Ross’ case, live in a more agorist world with a market free from state regulations? Or should we be more concerned about potential damage because of money laundry, increasing inequality, and unsustainability?

Those questions reach deeply into legal discussions about crypto in general. Politicians often see crypto as a paradise for criminal activities and don’t pay too much attention to all other use cases, like the support of public goods. However, every freedom will always also enable bad things. The discussion about online anonymity vs. legal regulation will accompany us also the following years. The crypto space will need to fight for its rights and freedom.

Can a DAO change the system?

With the attempt to free Ross and advance prison reform, Free Ross DAO questions US law enforcement and accuses the state of being unjust. The DAO wants to achieve political change by civil engagement.

But the possibility to pressure the system by mobilization is limited. We have this one centralized law and political system that some people profit from and others suffer from, but very few options to question those legal authorities and their methods.

The story of Free Ross DAO shows how it becomes harder to live in a society with centralized laws and law enforcement because people have opposing values and beliefs about what is righteous.

But on the other hand, with social media, and now with DAOs, we see an increase in possibilities to express opinions and mobilize as a group. Free Ross DAO is just one example of how individuals coordinated and assembled resources to achieve a joint mission. We’ve seen DAOs allocate huge sums of money to achieve a common goal; Constitution DAO and Free Ross DAO are prominent examples.

Free Ross is the first DAO that starts fighting against the decisions of legal authorities. What roles can DAOs play in shaping legal structures? DAOs are a new form of activism. They are very good at mobilizing money. How can the power of DAOs to mobilize people and money be used to influence legal structures? How can DAOs reshape the world we live in, not only on a moral but on a legal level?


When DAOs find ways to pressure the current system, we need to define our values and what we want and should fight for. We might have found a new powerful tool for mobilization. So with more and more use cases, we’ll see the real power of that tool and might also need to talk about possible dangers and who can be held responsible for the actions of a system that works decentralized and autonomous.

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