'Deep Web': SXSW Review

Deep Web Still - H 2015
Courtesy of SXSW

Deep Web Still - H 2015

A persuasive argument that we should care what happens to those accused of breaking the law online

Keanu Reeves narrates a doc about the Silk Road marketplace for his "Bill & Ted" co-star Alex Winter.

Returning to SXSW a year after his Napster doc Downloaded with one taking on an internet phenomenon that could be far more consequential, Alex Winter offers Deep Web, a film that despite its title's broad associations is mostly about the prosecution of Silk Road marketplace founder Ross Ulbricht. Geared toward viewers with no prior knowledge of the deep web (the vast swaths of the Internet that aren't indexed by search engines) but not so simplistic that experienced viewers needn't bother, the doc is serious and will be an eye-opener for many. It will play well at fests and is very well suited for small-screen distribution (it premieres on EPIX on May 31), where much news coverage of this subject has been marred by sensationalism.

With his old Bill & Ted co-star Keanu Reeves narrating, Winter does an efficient job of introducing both the deep web and its subset, the Darknet, in which users of anonymity-focused browsers like Tor and cryptocurrency like Bitcoin do business. The Darknet is where the now-infamous Silk Road was born, making it easy for users anywhere to (among other things) buy any kind of illicit drug with minimal difficulty.

With the help of journalist Andy Greenberg and some of the vendors who dealt drugs on Silk Road (shown in silhouette with their voices disguised), the film explains why some feel this is a good thing: "There needed to be a violence reduction" in buying drugs, says one dealer, referring both to gang warfare and violent raids by law enforcement. This leads to a quick but effective condemnation of America's failed War on Drugs and our for-profit incarceration industry.

But Greenberg, who interviewed a Silk Road administrator dubbed Dread Pirate Roberts early on, introduces broader libertarian rationales for the site's existence, topics that are amplified by others involved in the push for encryption and privacy online.

These broader discussions alternate with a step-by-step of the capture of Ulbricht, debates over whether he in fact was the DPR, and the question of whether he (or anyone else) committed all the crimes the government alleged, which included planning to have people killed. As prosecutors move to the trial that found Ulbricht guilty this January, Ulbricht's parents and lawyer describe many ways in which the deck was stacked against him, and claim law enforcement agencies pursued him using tactics they've previously declared illegal.

The film's position, and that of many civil-liberties organizations, is that this case illustrates privacy issues we should all be worried about, violations of Constitutional protections that are hard to enforce in the digital age. Though it might not be clear in news stories that focus on an "eBay for heroin," this case (like that of Aaron Swartz, subject of last year's The Internet's Own Boy) has the potential to affect the lives of law-abiding Americans in ways they won't understand until it's too late.

Production companies: EPIX, Trouper, Bond/360, Zipper Brothers Films

Director-Screenwriter: Alex Winter

Producers: Marc Schiller, Glen Zipper, Alex Winter

Executive producers: Seth Gordon

Director of photography: Joe DeSalvo

Editor: Dan Swietlik

Music: Pedro Bromfman

Sales: Content Media

No rating, 90 minutes