In 2013 filmmaker Alex Winter was finishing up his latest project “Downloaded” a documentary on the rise and fall of Napster, when in October of that same year the website Silk Road was shuttered and its founder, Robert Ulbricht, aka Dread Pirate Roberts, arrested by the FBI on money laundering, computer hacking and narcotics trafficking charges.
Originally interested in exploring the rise of Bitcoin, Winter slowly began to see the inside story had much more drama and intrigue. In fact, it’s interesting to note, the final cut of “Deep Web” doesn’t even mention Bitcoin, instead it focuses on exploring one of the most far-reaching and fascinating digital crimes of the 21st century.
Unbeknownst to many, Deep Web has real online presence. While most of us are technologically sophisticated enough to realize everything online can be traced by a corresponding I.P. address, those who frequent Deep Web instead of using a popular browser such as Chrome or Foxfire must enter through a free network called Tor which offers complete and total anonymity.
While the general consensus is the service Tor provides only attracts radical terrorists, online drug dealers and other nefarious cyber-criminals, with a reported four million users as of 2013, Tor also has become a safe-haven for people living in countries with stringent censorship and count among their many users journalists, whistleblowers, activists and law enforcement agencies.
Deep Web websites also utilize a different URL construction than those websites we all use on a daily basis. No .com, .org or .net, instead domains on the Deep Web end with .onion and the address is not just a simple business or personal name but the name along with a series of randomly generated numbers and letters. Not anyone can access an .onion URL as they only work with Tor software.
In an ironic twist of fate it turns out the Deep Web project was actually funded by the United States Naval Research Laboratory. The main goal in developing this network was to protect and encrypt government communications and even to this day it is still primarily funded by governments around the world, including the United States.
As Winter continued to dig he soon realized Silk Road, which began as one of thousands of tech companies operating in Silicon Valley and on the surface seemed to be nothing more, was in reality simply a front for a sophisticated online criminal community. Though one of the biggest surprises Winter discovered was the Silk Road community was not full of drug world employees or vendors but instead was operated by people from the tech sector. Even though Winter chose not to include the Bitcoin connection in his documentary, the technical side of Silk Road understood the need to market a product that people wanted; something that would draw them to the Silk Road site. It wasn’t a case of drug dealers creating a site from which to sell illegal narcotics but in fact, techies, political activists and the Occupy movement creating a site and then turning to drug sales as a way of drawing people in while promoting their ideals.
“Deep Web” delves into how some of the brightest tech minds in Silicon Valley, including Silk Road’s creator and operator, Ulbricht, a Penn State grad, who was recently sentenced to life in prison and ordered to forfeit over $183 million in assets, “are now caught in the crosshairs of the battle for control of a future inextricably linked to technology, with our digital rights hanging in the balance.”
Obviously with Bitcoin off the table, one might think the film is solely about Ulbricht and Silk Road when in reality it is so much more. Winter spent time in clandestine meetings held in dark storage units tucked away in deserted areas of Los Angeles. He traveled to London to film crypto-anarchists including Amir Taaki, a former gaming programmer who is credited as the creator of Dark Wallet, the code behind the anonymity of Bitcoin. Taaki also is the mastermind behind Dark Market, the online engine which propels Open Bazaar, an anonymous decentralized online marketplace. “It’s the biggest drug market-far bigger than Silk Road was when they shut that down-and it’s totally decentralized, so it’s pretty much impossible to stop it,” Winter told Empire Online.
Whether Winter realized it at the beginning but as he continued to gather research for “Deep Web” many similarities appeared with what ultimately he discovered about “Downloaded”. “That was my theme for Downloaded: that Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker hadn’t set out to create a technology that would enable you to download Madonna songs for free. It wasn’t really about filesharing; it was really about creating a global community online. That was their motivation and that’s what they succeeded in doing; they got trampled but the technology was out there and it kept evolving and evolving. People like Amir…are at the front end of using technologies and the internet to upend the establishment, completely. They’re motivated by social action….technology can be used for more than buying shoes or binge-watching House of Cards. It can be used to help change and better society.”
Even though Silk Road evolved into nothing more than an online illegal drug megastore, Winter believes Dread Pirate Roberts ultimate goal was to create an “entirely new economic ecosystem using Bitcoin”. And if you scratch the surface and overlook WHAT was sold and instead focus on HOW it was sold, over $1.2 billion in sales before its demise in 2013, you’ll see he did a pretty good job of succeeding and many in the tech sector believe the threat of an entire new ecosystem beyond the reach of both the law and the government is what propelled federal law enforcement to relentlessly prosecute Ulbricht. By making him an example, they hope to deter others from pursing these ideals. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, Winter believes, “Of course, that’s impossible and it’s creating the untenable situation that we’re currently in. It’s almost more like a whack-‘em-all game where you knock one and another one pops up somewhere else.”
The riveting and thought provoking documentary “Deep Web”, directed and produced by Winter and narrated by Keanu Reeves can be watched online at EpixHD.