Baltimore City Paper

City Paper at SXSW: The doc 'Deep Web' is a deeply dishonest look at the Silk Road online marketplace

A picture of Ross William Ulbricht shown in the documentary "Deep Web."

"Deep Web," which had its world premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival this week, is a deeply dishonest movie, for it tries to pass off right-wing entitlement as left-wing rebellion. This Alex Winter-directed documentary about the Silk Road website and the prosecution of its self-confessed founder Ross Ulbricht frames its story as a tale of the government trampling civil liberties. What right, the film seems to be saying, does the government have in interfering with the right of entrepreneurs to sell heroin and crystal meth to teenagers by mail?

It all bears an eerie echo of the Koch Brothers, Monsanto, and Smith & Wesson complaining that the government has no right to regulate the free market. They should be able to sell petroleum, food, and guns with no concerns for safety, the environment, or consumer protection. The film's lionization of internet rebels smells like another case of "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss."


Launched in 2011, the Silk Road marketplace used "deep web" technology to make selling and shopping on the site anonymous in a way sites on the "visible web" could never be. Most of what was sold and bought were illegal drugs in enormous volumes. The U.S. government shut down the site in 2013 and arrested Ulbricht, claiming he was the site's administrator, Dread Pirate Roberts.

Winter, who was a star of "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure" and won fame as a filmmaker for his earlier internet documentary, "Downloaded," knows how to make the technological complexity of the cyber world transparent to the layperson. He explains how the Silk Road website created its marketplace by combining Tor and Bitcoin software to create transactions that were nearly impossible to trace. Dread Pirate Roberts posted regular blogs extolling the site's community as a libertarian paradise.


What this utopia actually did was allow capitalist drug dealers to make millions of dollars with no restrictions other than a suggested voluntary restraint about what they sold or who they sold it to. The film argues that the War on Drugs has been such a failure that drugs should be sold without restriction. That's like saying big pharmaceutical companies should be able to sell whatever they want however they want—and let the consumer beware. But you can agree with the failure of our current drug laws without agreeing that there should be no regulation whatsoever.

From Dread Pirate Roberts to Rand Paul, libertarians are arguing that the businessman—usually a white male of privilege—should be able manipulate the market however he wants—and let the children and the poor look out for themselves.

"Deep Web" has other problems besides its reactionary politics. What can you put on screen when you're making a movie about an anonymous website? You can display screen shots of the web pages, but those fuzzy images get tiresome quickly. You can interview sellers on the site who demand anonymity, but the shots of silhouetted heads talking in altered deep voices also wear out their welcome. You can create animated graphics, but Winter's are especially uninspired.

What you're left with are a lot of talking-head interviews with journalists covering the case, self-righteous hackers denouncing the case, pedantic cybercrime specialists, and Ulbricht's own parents. And Winter has skewed the talking heads so obviously in one direction that the result is not a debate about the issues but merely propaganda for one side—a side that is in an ideological bed with some very unsavory characters.