Silk Road was a black marketplace located in the deep web, the secret, anonymous and invisible territory of the Internet often used by activists, journalists and criminals.
The site was administered by a persona known as Dread Pirate Roberts (yes it is a Princess Bride reference). An extensive online community formed, discussing decentralization, economic theory, old school libertarian ideals and ideas for a future anarcho-utopian society. The main way these ideas expressed themselves, in reality, was by providing an online drug marketplace. The aim, buyers and sellers proclaimed, was to remove violence and the state from the equation. Any harm caused would be an individual's informed decision. While the ideals might or might not be laudable, making a huge profit by selling drugs and calling it freedom seems rather self-serving.
Ross Ulbricht, a twenty-something living in San Francisco was accused of running this multi-billion dollar enterprise. Alex Winter's engaging documentary Deep Web gives the background to Silk Road, law enforcement's attempts to shut it down and the subsequent trial of Ulbricht. He never appears on camera, so our impressions of this character come from friends, family, journalists and a little video footage. All describe him as a calm pacifist, and not a criminal mastermind who could order assassinations (Ulbricht was accused of paying for several hits on informers). What seems clear is that Ulbricht was deprived of a fair trail at every turn, and that attempts to paint him as a pariah were incredibly successful.
What is most interesting about Deep Web is how it attempts to glimpse our future. Technological change is happening most rapidly in ways and places the average person can't see or imagine. And the precedents set in the prosecution of Ulbricht will have wide-reaching effects for the future of regulation online, personal privacy and much more. While this film is a captivating legal thriller, I would have liked it to delve much deeper into the wider subject matter. That is where DOXA's Justice Forum is helpful as experts in the area were on hand to take the discussion to the next level.