By Nate Raymond
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Jury selection began on Tuesday in the trial of the suspected operator of Silk Road, an online black market bazaar where users could anonymously buy drugs and other illicit goods using bitcoin.
The trial in Manhattan federal court of Ross Ulbricht, 30, marks the highest-profile test yet of U.S. authorities' efforts to crackdown on the use of the digital currency bitcoin for drug trafficking and other crimes.
Ulbricht faces seven counts including operating a continuing criminal enterprise and conspiracy to commit narcotics trafficking. He faces up to life in prison in a case his supporters call an attack on Internet freedom.
Outside the courthouse earlier on Tuesday, a small group of protesters held up signs, including ones saying "30 years to life for an honest website?" and "Web hosting is not a crime!"
Silk Road operated from at least January 2011 to October 2013, authorities say, generating sales of $1.2 billion and commissions of $80 million by the time the FBI seized it and arrested Ulbricht.
Prosecutors say Ulbricht ran it as the "Dread Pirate Roberts," an alias borrowed from a character in the 1987 movie "The Princess Bride." The website relied on the so-called Tor network, which lets users communicate anonymously.
Authorities say Ulbricht took extreme steps to protect Silk Road, soliciting the murder-for-hire of six people who posed a threat. No evidence exists the murders were carried out.
Ulbricht, who has been in custody since his arrest in October 2013, has pleaded not guilty and has never conceded creating Silk Road.
Twelve jurors and four alternates will be selected from a pool that U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest said on Tuesday would include around 90 people.
Ahead of Tuesday's proceedings, 92 potential jurors were dismissed based on their responses to a written questionnaire.
Questions included what were potential jurors' computer habits and whether they had heard of Ulbricht, Silk Road, bitcoin or the Dread Pirate Roberts, other than in "The Princess Bride."The case is U.S. v. Ulbricht, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 13-06919.
(Reporting by Nate Raymond in New York; Editing by Tom Brown)