The trial of Ross Ulbricht, a California man charged with running an online black-market bazaar called Silk Road, had barely begun when a objection was lodged. The New York Times reports that at issue was a piece of information that Ulbricht's lawyer suggested was critically important, yet was omitted by federal prosecutors: an emoji (emoticon), a version of a smiley face. The unusual debate, out of the presence of the federal court jury in New York City, arose after a prosecutor finished reading the text of an Internet post: “I'm so excited and anxious for our future, I could burst,” making no mention of the smiling symbol that followed.
Judge Katherine Forrest instructed the jury that it should take note of any such symbols in messages. The Ulbricht trial, in its third week, has been full of novel twists because of its high-tech intrigue. Ulbricht, 30, is accused of running the Silk Road website, where the government says several thousand vendors sold drugs and other illicit goods. The eBay-like enterprise was run on a hidden part of the Internet called the Tor network, where online activity can be anonymous. Deals were made in Bitcoins, an electronic currency that is as anonymous as cash, and Ulbricht used a pseudonym, Dread Pirate Roberts, in chats with his employees and other communications, the government charges. How chats and other messages and their symbols should be presented in court, and the larger question of how jurors should be educated about unfamiliar terms in a case steeped in web culture, has become a running subplot in the case.