THE SXSW ISSUE
The week of March 8, 2015
Deep_Web_1

What I learned from a year in the ‘Deep Web’

By Alex Winter

I began working on Deep Web in October 2013, just after the arrest of Ross Ulbricht in San Francisco. But during the 13 years of researching and making Downloaded, the Napster story, I became embedded in the world of hackers, Internet freedom advocates, and crypto-technologies. Before that, I was big into the BBS/Usenet era of the late ’80s and early ’90s, so I didn’t come to the story of the Dark Net cold. But I still had a lot to learn.

Here are the top five most surprising discoveries I made on this journey into the Deep Web.

1) The government sure does hate the Internet

I know this seems obvious, but it wasn’t to me—not to the specific degree that I encountered. Certain factions within law enforcement and the justice system really fear and loathe the Internet. I put this discovery up at No. 1 because it was the most chilling aspect of making this movie. To research Silk Road and the Dark Net, I met a lot of black-hat hackers, crypto-anarchists, and admitted cybercriminals and drug dealers. I met them over encryption; I met them in dark alleys alone at night (stupid move, I know). I became very close to these people. And I was never afraid.

There is a growing faction that sees the Internet as a tool for unity and liberation.

The only time I became afraid was when I got close to the intense level of hostility and contempt that many members of government and law enforcement agents feel toward anyone who supports the Dark Net and privacy and anonymity technologies. My firewall of encryption, which I initially constructed to protect me from the bad guys, ultimately gave me cover from the supposed good guys. This made me very sad. And my greatest relief, as I closed out this project, was that I could stop worrying about hiding from these people. Imagine how Barrett Brown must feel!

2) The government sure doesn’t understand the Internet

Again, obvious, and I learned without much surprise while making Downloaded that a lot of the anger toward Napster stemmed from a fundamental lack of understanding about how the Internet actually works. But as the government essentially built the Internet, I figured it would have a greater and more global understanding of it than the RIAA or MPAA. Nope.

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There is a horrendous and destructive lack of basic comprehension from both members of federal and state government and, even more frightening, within high levels of law enforcement. They don’t get Bitcoin (“Bitcoin Bad!” could easily replace Metallica’s “Napster Bad!”), they don’t get Tor, and they don’t get the need for basic privacy online and encryption in communication. Even worse, they don’t get these things on a fundamental technical level. There were many frustrating aspects to Ross Ulbricht’s truncated non-trial, but it was wincingly painful to watch the lawyers and the FBI witnesses completely mangle how Bitcoin and encryption function. Someone from DARPA needs to hold some night classes for senators, district attorneys, and everyone at the FBI posthaste. 

3) The online drug markets reduce harm and violence in the drug trade

This did not occur to me, in any meaningful way, until I spent the day with Neill Franklin from LEAP. He is an incredibly inspiring individual and that rare law enforcement veteran who embraces technology and ways to use it to make our lives better. There has been heated debate online recently, with many people taking a hard position that the drug markets do not reduce violence or harm in the drug trade.

My firewall of encryption, which I initially constructed to protect me from the bad guys, ultimately gave me cover from the supposed good guys.

This argument makes no sense to me, as the opposite is just common sense (fewer street deals, fewer dealers in schoolyards getting kids to sell for free, etc.). But Franklin really opened my eyes to the broader statistics and why online services are the best way to close down the failed and horrific drug war. This isn’t a vote of confidence for every online market, because many of them, in the wake of Silk Road, lack vision and any form of ethics. But the facts do indeed show that the online markets reduce harm and violence in the drug trade.

4) Most of the media has no clue about the Internet, either

Another surprising discovery was that only a few key players in the tech press are willing to provide thorough and balanced reporting around the ethics and challenges of the Internet. Most of the media has no clue and seemingly no interest in how the Internet and the Dark Net truly function, and worse, many are quick to judge and condemn the players in this world without a full grasp of the facts. 

I could certainly argue that the Ross Ulbricht case fell prey to this problem, but it isn’t just Ross. It’s shocking that 15 years after Napster threw a seismic rock in the water of global culture, the mainstream reporting and response is still largely a blanket dismissal that the world has changed and what is changing it. And specific to the Dark Net and crypto, there is a pervasive skeptical cynicism toward anyone involved in the Internet freedom movement at the core of these technologies. Very few in the media even accept that there is an Internet freedom movement. Well guess what…

5) There is a burgeoning, global, Internet freedom movement

This is not relegated to cypherpunks, whistleblowers, crypto-anarchists, and libertarians. My journey into this world showed me something that was profoundly inspiring; this movement is all-encompassing. Every drug dealer I met working the online markets is a believer in this movement. The law enforcement officers working to abolish the drug trade are believers. Lyn Ulbricht (Ross’s mother) became a true believer, and so did I.

Someone from DARPA needs to hold some night classes for senators, district attorneys, and everyone at the FBI posthaste.

There is a growing faction that sees the Internet as a tool for unity and liberation; these people are nonpartisan, nondenominational, both pro- and anti-government, tech-savvy, and tech-averse. I was really touched by the force and passion of this movement—of its diversity and its unshakable unity.

This movement, like most, probably won’t last very long, and it won’t take over the world. But I do believe it will create irrevocable change for the better. And it may be the only movement in history that comes and goes under a cloak of total anonymity.

Deep Web will premiere at SXSW and then air on EPIX later this spring.

Photo via Deep Web