Documentary Review: ‘Deep Web’ Uncovers Silk Road

Greetings again from the darkness. Even those of us who consistently obey the law have a general idea of how criminals work: robbing banks, stealing cars, kidnapping people, even hacking websites for personal information. Additionally, the vast majority of us have at least a rudimentary understanding of how the internet works, and the steps we take to increase security. Documentarian Alex Winter combines these two topics as he takes us inside the deep web … specifically Silk Road on the Darknet.

The Surface Web vs The Deep Web – the film exposes what most of us have very little knowledge of. The simple explanation is that the “surface web” is what we use on a daily basis: Facebook postings photos of our latest meal and YouTube video sensations showing cats fighting their mirrored reflection. The Deep Web is what lies beneath. This is the (mostly) untraceable technology where the underground marketplace site known as Silk Road exists. To be clear, most of the ongoings on the deep web are legitimate and in good faith – used frequently by journalists. However, the other side is how it obtained the nickname “ebay for Heroin”. Yep, untraceable transactions for illegal drugs definitely happened (and still do). It turns out that Bitcoin is the ideal underground currency for this commerce, as it can be as untraceable as the drug orders.

You might recognize the name of director Alex Winter as half of the classic movie duo in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989). Mr. Winter released a documentary a couple years ago entitled Downloaded, where he explored the rise and fall of Napster and the effects of downloaded music. This current topic is much more dangerous and secretive, and he wisely brings along his old buddy Keanu Reeves as the narrator. Winter’s approach here is initially a bit confusing, as the focus seems uncertain – is it a tell all about the deep web, or is it a profile of Silk Road, or is it an analysis of the arrest and subsequent trial of possible Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht?

Most of the attention goes to Ulbricht, better known as the Dread Pirate Roberts (DPR), a pseudonym snatched from the classic movie The Princess Bride. Is/Was Ulbricht the DPR? Winter is content to leave that mystery unsolved, but the real story here is how the government put the case together against Ulbricht – fabricating charges (later dropped), circumstantial evidence, and a probable breach of privacy.

The general belief is that we should have a free and open and secure internet, though most of us never stop to think what a ludicrous demand that really is. It’s the lack of privacy and ease of breach on the surface web that led to the development of the deep web – an anonymous and mostly secure environment. At least it was until the government went hard after Silk Road. Shutting down the non-violent drug transactions justified the law enforcement and political attention that the drug wars along the border never have. Is this a good thing? Is Ulbricht the DPR? Does it matter that after his arrest, his void was quickly filled by other opportunists? Do you believe you are secure on the web? Winter presents an exceptional amount of information that deserves even more discussion and explanation. That alone makes it time well spent.

Premiere Sunday, May 31 on EPIX.

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