Deep Web — Film Review
Directed by Alex Winter
This is a partisan, advocacy film that champions the legal cause of Ross Ulbricht, who was convicted of heading the website Silk Road, which was the E-bay or Amazon of every imaginable illegal drug on the internet. I was rather dissatisfied with the film from beginning to end. The film is naive and hypocritical and its audience is basically Silicon Valley tech nerds and people who want to buy and sell illegal drugs on the internet.
I have been cynical about the so-called “War on Drugs” since it was declared by Nixon in 1971 and amplified by Reagan in the 1980s. The film is not about the longstanding folly of the misguided Drug War. It is narrowly focused on the case of Ross Ulbricht, who in my view is simply another casualty of this poorly conceived governmental policy. Ulbricht and his collaborators tried to set up a website that could be used anonymously to traffic in illegal drugs. Well, the government found out about it, hatched an undercover operation, and brought it down and arrested Ulbricht. It is probably true that the government used illegal means in its assault on the Silk Road. It is probably true that Ross Ulbricht’s trial was not fair, that the government fabricated evidence, trumped up false charges, tried to smear him in the media and so bias the trial against him. But this is standard procedure in these drug cases. The filmmakers are shocked and appalled that the government would behave this way. But this has been going on for decades in this country and there are thousands, perhaps more than a million people in jail in this country who were put there the same way. Why do they think there have been riots recently in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore? What do they think of all the unrest all across the country about police heavy handedness and brutality?
I have never regarded anything that is done or communicated over the internet as private: e-mail, “chat,” business transactions, anything bought or sold, anything looked at, shopped for, searched for, read, photographs, pornography, anything. My attitude is that there is no such thing as anonymity or privacy on the internet. So my expectations are extremely low. Everything can be recorded, everything can be saved, everything can be traced. Nothing is secret. Don’t even think about it.
The people who invented the Silk Road and other similar sites, as well as the filmmakers, don’t believe this. They think that secrecy on the internet is possible, that anonymity is possible, that it can be mechanically constructed and preserved indefinitely. But the case of Ross Ulbricht demonstrates that a determined adversary can thwart such illusions. It is a chess game that can probably go on forever. But it does not really interest me. If you really want secrecy and privacy, keep it off your computer and pay in cash. It is very easy, and very old fashioned.
Ross Ulbricht, the filmmakers, and the intended audience are mostly white, upper middle class younger people who grew up in a comfortable bubble playing video games and never really knew what was going on around them. Suddenly they are waking up to find that they can’t freely buy marijuana and other drugs that they want. But the United States has been moving toward a fascistic, authoritarian governmental system for at least fifty years. It is a very steady progression that can be seen and measured by anyone who cares to look carefully. Nixon was forced to resign from the presidency for ordering a burglary into the offices of his political rivals. At the time that was considered a great vindication of the justice and righteousness of the American system. Today Obama orders extrajudicial murders all around the world, even of American citizens, and no one bats an eye. It’s just another day in the news.
In 1970 there were less than 200,000 people in prison in the United States.1 Now (2007), according to the Pew Research Center, there are 2.3 million incarcerated, and if you count all the people on parole and probation it comes to 7.3 million.2 Do the filmmakers care about all of those people? No. They care about Ross Ulbricht because he is one of their own. He is white, upper middle class, and a techie. But the film is also naive about Ross Ulbricht. They paint him as a kind of libertarian idealist, who set up this website where people could buy and sell illegal drugs for the good of humanity. They give an inordinate amount of time to Ross Ulbricht’s mother and father, who are squarely in his camp. What they did not do was follow the money. How much money did Ross Ulbricht make running the Silk Road, and where is it? They never bothered to ask themselves that question.
I wish the film had been a more comprehensive exposition of the so called “Deep Web,” websites that are not readily accessible with the usual browsers and require special anonymizing software to gain access. I have no knowledge of this aspect of the internet and would be curious to see how it works and see a broad overview of the kinds of communications and transactions that are carried on within it and who uses it. But this film was not educational, although it did lament that the vast majority of computer and internet users have no understanding of the deep web and how to use and access it. But the film did nothing to dispel that ignorance and incapacity. It actually made it seem all the more remote and inaccessible for the average computer user.
This film is very insular. It is for tech insiders, not a general audience. It champions the cause of a rather dubious individual engaged in flagrantly illegal activities. It is mostly oblivious to social and political trends that have been going on in the United States for a very long time. It represents a kind of awakening for people who have been asleep and who are suddenly realizing to their shock and horror that the world they live in is nothing like the world of their dreams. I was not impressed with it at all.
We have a government that has kept people in Guantanamo prison for over a decade without charges, without a judicial hearing of any kind, contrary to the Geneva conventions to which it is a signatory, and contrary to our own constitution, and legal tradition going back to the Magna Carta. It kidnaps people off the street, renditions them to foreign countries where they are held anonymously in secret prisons and tortured. And you expect this government to respect your privacy? Who do you think you are kidding? Our government wants secrecy for itself, but not for you. They would love to get their talons into Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, just like they did to Chelsea Manning. They can come after you any time they want for any reason or no reason. All citizens and non citizens are vulnerable in a society where the government does not abide by its own laws, does not respect its own constitution, and allows the executive and the police to rule by decree. This is the consistent trend in the United States over a very long period of time. I have watched this progression over the course of my life time. Things are not getting better. They are getting worse. And I don’t think this small group of bold, tech savvy hackers is going to change that long term trend. The forces behind it are powerful and deeply entrenched. The monster is more likely to do itself in before they will. Seen at the San Francisco International Film Festival, May 4, 2015.
1. Unlocking America: Why and How to Reduce American’s Prison Population. JFA Associates, November 2007.
2. Pew Center on the States, One in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections. Washington, DC: The Pew Charitable Trusts, March 2009