As a tech journalist and digital literacy advocate/activist, I’ve come to a profound realization that most people don’t really understand technology. We buy smartphones and use a quarter of what they may be capable of, which could be argued that that is a feature creep problem and not an end-user issue. How many of the public knows if the antivirus on their computers is current, or what the notifications from it actually look like so they aren’t so easily duped when “hackers” use malware attacks masked as virus alerts to infect computers? How much do we really know, or understand, about what’s going on around us and how it’s going to affect our future as technology becomes more sophisticated?
I had the chance to take an early look at an EPIX Original Documentary, The Deep Web, which chronicles the rise and fall of the Silk Road website and its alleged creator Ross Ulbricht. This is a site which existed and operated on a part of the deep web that is known as the “dark net” and was infamous for being the Amazon.com of illegal drugs. Cocaine, heroin, Molly, you wanted it, you could get it; for the most part. Having a background in investigative journalism, what always intrigues me about stories like this is not the things that most of us are immediately turned off by. Who would argue that cocaine should be easy to buy online for teens and have shipped right to their mailboxes, parents unawares? What intrigues me are the perspectives and notions that challenge the way we think. Those that create tension between our sense of morals and common sense. Those that present problems which have no simple solutions, only raising more questions. The Deep Web does exactly that.
For a primer on what the Silk Road actually was, you can read up on that here. What we get in this 90 minute documentary is more than just a look at the man who was charged with creating the silk road site, but a look at the problems of drug-related violence and potential government overreach. Due process, the “war on drugs,” and law enforcement corruption are all touched upon in addition to the illegal activity that the site enabled. The story starts off by bringing viewers up to speed on what the deep web and dark net are, then goes into what the Silk Road was, how it was portrayed in the media and what kinds of things were sold through it. We get a glimpse into the online community that grew around the Silk Road and some of the people involved in it. I think the documentary does a great job of laying out all of those elements so that everyone from those who aren’t very tech savvy, to those who had no idea such a thing existed can easily understand what it was and why it was so impactful.
From there, the documentary goes into greater details about Ross and his arrest. This is where things get interesting as we learn about him, the case that was built against him and how our government prosecuted the case. We hear from his parents as well and it becomes a “David v. Goliath” story, not unlike the ones we often hear about where there is no happy ending and Goliath throws his weight around in a manner which makes us angry and sympathetic to the underdog’s plight. It doesn’t feel like the doc’s director is manipulating viewers to make Ross Ulbricht seem like the underdog you want to root for so much as giving an account of the case that played out in the media and in the courtroom.
From there, we get into the people who are bent on helping further the deep web’s existence and making it harder for those they feel would compromise our personal freedoms. They raise some interesting questions about technology and how it’s being used by the government and the freedoms they feel are being trampled.
In the end, I think this documentary does what an effective story of this type should do and that’s raise questions. I think it should cause us to take a step back and look at those beliefs we hold dear, even if it doesn’t change them. The Deep Web will definitely have you taking a hard look at what you know about the web and how our government and those who would call themselves “freedom fighters” are handling it.