Thursday, June 4, 2015

Deep Web (2015)

Director: Alex Winter
Writer:   Alex Winter
Narrated By: Keanu Reeves

Deep Web is a feature documentary that explores the rise of this new form of Internet; decentralized, encrypted, dangerous and beyond the law. It is as much about the trial of Ross Ulbricht, accused as founder of Silk Road and as man who posed as its admin- Dread Pirate Roberts, as it is about the principles based on which many of these cyber-punks operate.

The film works like a arguments given by Ross' defense team and they make their case based on the circumstances under which things like deep web browser TOR and crypto-currencies like bitcoin propped up. Privacy and anonymity are their big selling point and Silk Road made use of these two features and operated as an online market place providing anonymity for its users. Ross Ulbricht during his defense admitted that he created Silk Road but that he was framed as its admin Dread Pirate Roberts. His thinking is based on the Austrian economics as proposed by the economist Ludwig von Mises and he saw Silk Road as a alternative market for drug trade that will help in reducing the violence associated with it. It is widely acknowledged theory that America's 'War on Drugs' has been on the whole counterproductive and it makes sense to legalize drugs and many states have started correcting themselves by legalizing marijuana. As long as there is demand for it and the government is pursuing this misguided war by making it illegal, plenty of money is to be made by going the illegal route and an online marketplace like Silk Road is a natural extension of the same. Even if you shut it down, dozens of other such mechanisms will take its place, like it has already, and it will be a case of dog chasing its own tail.

FBI's case is mainly built on their seizure of Silk Road server from Iceland and it has been iffy about how they found it and was presumably done without a warrant. This raises the big issue of digital privacy and fourth amendment but the judge during the trial allegedly took a very favorable stand towards the prosecution side and made a sham of the trial. As soon as Ross was arrested, a big thing was made about him hiring a hit-man to take out someone who was blackmailing him. The defense argues that this was done to prejudice the jury and no such official charge was made against him during the trial. 3500 pages of FBI investigation documents/evidence, which could have raised questions about their investigation methods, was given to the defense just a week ahead of the trial and it was't even allowed as evidence during the trail. Ross was convicted and has  been sentenced for life in prison without parole. You kind of suspect that this is not the end of this issue and there is a significant case to be made that it was a mistrial and probably Serial podcast will take up his case :) Under the existing laws, the creation of a market place where you can provide a platform for illegal drug trade should be enough for getting you a significant jail time but that doesn't make it fair, especially if the state has used questionable investigative methods. It is a question of piracy and as it stands, I think Police can seize your smartphones without any warrant for it. All they need to look for is Whatsapp application to arrest every fucker out there. In India, laws are made so complex that everyone is breaking them without knowledge and if the state want to target someone, they can easily do that. The slow judiciary just compounds the problem.

As for Silk Road, Bitcoin and Austrian economics, I am of the opinion that all of them are ultimately pipe-dreams. For any market, the major roadblock for them is to ensure the enforcement of contracts. Anonymity is a big hindrance to this and you are just relying on review mechanism to ensure that vendors stay true. I really doubt such a thing can sustain in this fashion without a centralized enforcement mechanism, which in case of normal markets is the state and in illegal markets would be the mafia and other such middlemen enforcers. As for bitcoin, I do reckon it is again misguided and will encounter significant problems when they scale up. It is not really anonymous and their  other big selling point of very low transaction costs, compared to other third party mechanisms like banks, will again won't remain so as they scale up.

Overall the film is a good watch giving a counter-argument to the state influenced mainstream media narrative regarding the case. The argument is one sided and works like propaganda and you can decide for yourself how much weight you need to give to their narrative. As we are in the post-Snowden era, the benefit of doubt goes largely to the defense here and the cloud over NSA scandal will remain over the state. Keanu Reeves doesn't add much through his narration but he was excellent in the Digital Vs Film documentary 'Side By Side. Deep Web was funded via crowd-sourcing. It is not wholly coherent as to what it wants to be but is very informative. I guess that is perfect since it is anyway about Deep Web in the first place which for most of us is deeply dark.

Rating: 3.5/5