A German court sentenced the owner of one of most prolific dark web forums in Germany to six years in prison for allowing the sale of firearms on the forum. A judge held him accountable for several homicides and assaults connected to the forum.
A 31-year-old from Karlsruhe was identified as the owner of the German dark web forum, “Germany in the DeepWeb,” between 2013 and 2017. German law enforcement launched an investigation into the forum following the Munich Massacre. Investigators learned that a vendor on the forum had sold the gunman, David Sonboly, a Glock and ammunition. Sonboly then used the Glock to kill ten people and wound several others. Prosecutors held the vendor accountable by negligence for Sonboly’s crimes. Prosecutors later held the forum owner accountable for the same crimes.
Opinions about the defendant’s guilt varied between the officials involved in the case and members of the public. The forum owner initially faced less serious charges. Prosecutors had only issued a search warrant for aiding and abetting the illegal sale of narcotics and aiding and abetting the illegal sale of firearms. Facing only charges for running a site where users could buy and sell almost anything, the defendant secured pre-trial release and preemptively admitted running the dark web forum.
He told the court that he believed in the freedom of speech and created a place where users could discuss various topics without state sponsored censorship. For the most part, users of Germany in the DeepWeb could discuss anything. In one subforum, vendors could similarly sell almost anything. Many of the usual restrictions applied to forum vendors. However, the defendant allowed the sale of firearms. And many German firearms vendors flocked to the forum. The defendant’s argument was that the forum was effectively unregulated and that he had no say in what his users sold or purchased on the forum. His argument made sense to the court in some of the hearings. However, during the most recent hearings, the prosecution proved that the defendant had manually approved or vetted every listing on the forum. Vendors had to send him a picture of their listing, a description, and other information as needed. By manually approving listings, the defendant had directly approved the sale of the weapons used during the so-called “Munich Massacre.”
His direct approval of the Glock and accompanying ammunition allowed the prosecution to easily reach a conviction, turning the case into another version of the case against the vendor directly involved with the gunman. In that case, a dark web firearm vendor faced charges for illegally selling weapons and ammunition, for negligent assault, and negligent manslaughter. The Munich gunman took nine lives before talking his own life. As a result, the vendor faced nine counts of negligence charges. Prosecutors had initially only charged him for illegally selling weapons but later found evidence indicating that he had known what Sonboly had planned to do with the Glock.
Without the forum, a sentencing judge said, “the shooter could not have bought the weapon and could not have carried out the shooting rampage.” The judge also spoke of the severity of the nine murders in Munich and listened to an impact statement from a teenage survivor of the attacks. Throughout the case, court officials have spoken of the “uncharted territory” during the prosecution of the defendant. No modern laws adequately covered the defendant’s crimes as the owner of a discussion forum used for both innocent and criminal discussions completely unrelated to the Munich shootings.
“Germany in the DeepWeb was an anonymous forum created from an original idea. That’s a nice thing,” said Judge Radke said. “It is quite frightening how easily digital traces can be reconstructed. One must think of countries in which freedom of opinion and the press are not upheld.” The creator of Germany in the DeepWeb would have been “well acclaimed” if he had simply created a platform for free speech, according to the judge. “Unfortunately, he did not do that. The way [he] used the forum did a great disservice to [his] cause.”
The sentence of six years in prison can be appealed by the defense. Otherwise the sentence is final.