When star of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure and Idiot Box Alex Winter launched a Kickstarter campaign last fall for his documentary on the deep web, the underground marketplace Silk Road, and Bitcoin, it may have seemed like a case of a filmmaker latching onto a hip, subversive subject.
Actually, his motivations were more personal.
As early as 1986, an interest in computers led Winter down into the proto-deep web communities of Usenet, BBS (bulletin board system), and news groups, where people talked about everything from art and philosophy to radical social theories.
The actor and filmmaker used these hidden forums to research a screenplay he was writing on pot farmers, which he later abandoned. These pot farmers didn't pay taxes, lived outside the system, and were highly educated and aware individuals. Like Silk Road's infamous drug dealers, they used technology to circumvent authority.
It was a "wild west" where the foundations of today's deep web, Bitcoin, and the underground digital marketplace Silk Road were laid. "It was all there," Winter said. "The drug markets, the encrypted email, you name it."
Winter sees something similar in today's deep web; a kind of community that is positive and worth preserving.
It was that attitude that helped him land an interview with original cypherpunk Tim May, the author of "The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto," a man generally viewed as the prophet of the anonymous deep web.
There have always been, and always will be communities online that no one but a select few know about
For months the two communicated over encrypted text. Winter had to convince May he wasn't making a "shallow, hyperbolic movie about drugs on the internet." May wanted to discuss the "greater, more revolutionary changes afoot" kicked off by the cypherpunks and new wave of cryptographers: how deep web crypto can potentially neutralize or, more idealistically, eliminate government control.
The film is definitely not shaping up to be a hyperbolic movie about drugs on the internet: Winter is very convinced of the loftiness of his subjects' goals. "Dread Pirate Roberts put three disparate elements together that created a scalable internet-based economy outside the jurisdiction of banks, laws, and governments," Winter said. "It really was about creating an ecosystem, and drugs were the way in. If you read any of Dread Pirate Roberts' writing, it was about creating an ecosystem, a community, and it worked."
Winter is bullish on the deep web's power to subvert law enforcement and the government, which he believes was the real motivation for the crackdown on Silk Road. So does he worry that his filmcould bring unwanted attention to the deep web, threatening its very existence and potential, just as journalists did with their often sensationalist Silk Road coverage? For him, the idea that the deep web would or even should remain a secret defies logic.
"Any ecosystem, as it grows and becomes robust and efficient, will attract attention and become less rarified," he said.
"The Tim Mays of the world weren't saying 'Let's build a secret digital clubhouse and all hang out there' like the 'he-man woman haters club' out of Little Rascals," Winter added. "They were saying that cryptography allows us to use the math to be anonymous and send encrypted information. That is a critical difference that people always seem to get wrong."
Usenet users wanted others to know they were there, he said. They wanted to grow the community.
"There have always been, and always will be communities online that no one but a select few know about," Winter said. "The deep web becomes [safer] the more people are on it. Anonymity loves company; that's how crypto works."
Winter is confident that this deep web anonymity will allow an ecosystem of decentralized communication and markets to grow on a global scale.
It's possible that, despite growing interest and use, any deep web markets following in Silk Road's wake will remain niche virtual communities with niche players. At the time of its shutdown, Silk Road had nearly one million registered accounts. With more virtual markets popping up, this number should indeed grow—but by how much remains to be seen.
Silk Road's sales are insignificant when measured against the global economy, estimated to be $87.25 trillion in 2013 (world currencies factored in). By comparison, the global shadow economy was estimated to sit around $10 trillion in 2011, according to Friedrich Schneider, chair of the economics department at Johannes Kepler University. If virtual markets were to make significant inroads as virtual exchanges for that shadow economy, they could legitimately threaten the status quo.
All of this is contingent on stable cryptocurrencies remaining untainted by mainstream co-option, as some deep webbers believe is happening with Bitcoin, and it will take something far beyond wishful thinking to get there. Still, the deep web may yet prove to be a disruptive force strong enough to upend the establishment—which would be great for Winter's film.