Alex Winter: The Dark Net Isn’t What You Think. It’s Actually Key To Our Privacy (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of documentary filmmaker Alex Winter’s TEDx Talk: The Dark Net Isn’t What You Think. It’s Actually Key To Our Privacy at TEDxMidAtlantic conference. To learn more about the man behind the Dark Web, read the bio here.


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Alex Winter – Documentary filmmaker

So for most of my life I’ve been obsessed with the digital revolution. That may sound strange coming from an actor, director but actually I blame the Bill and Ted movies for my obsession with technology.

You see, one day in the late ‘80s, I woke up with my face on a cereal box. Yeah. When the first Bill and Ted opened, my life became permanently public. Grocery shopping had to be done in the middle of the night. Crowded subway was a no-go zone. And a teenage fan ran away from home, crossed the country by bus, and parked herself at my front door. Thankfully I was out of town.

Now don’t get me wrong. I was very grateful for the success of those movies. But like many young people thrust into the spotlight, I was unprepared for a life that suddenly lacked any degree of privacy and anonymity. And that’s when I discovered the Internet.

Specifically, the anonymous online communities that existed in the crude early days of the net before the existence of the modern web that we know today. Believe it or not here were thousands of people around the world, meeting in online news groups and chat rooms to discuss a wide range of interests and connect with each other. Many of us using anonymous usernames and even encrypted email. There had never been anything like this, and it blew my mind. I may have come to the anonymous internet for privacy but I stayed for the community — a vibrant network where I could say what I wanted and be myself. It was a very liberating experience, whether or not your face was on a cereal box.

So I’ve since spent a lot of time investigating the evolution of online communities: who builds them? What motivates their creation and how these often-radical technologies are changing the world? And that led me to make a documentary called Deep Web.

Now this movie mostly examines the Silk Road which was an anonymous online marketplace and forum that existed in a hidden area of the internet and used Bitcoin, an unregulated digital currency.

Now the Silk Road sold many things, but mostly drugs, including illegal drugs. This is a heated subject and for the most part, the media covered it in a highly salacious manner. The headlines screamed about a shadowy Internet filled with guns and drugs and hitmen. The further I investigated it, the more I realized it was largely inaccurate.

You see what compelled me to spend several years immersed in the area of the Silk Road and the hidden Internet was a desire to discover what if anything they mean to the average citizen. And it turns out they mean a great deal.

So let’s start with the basics: What is this hidden Internet exactly?

Now the media coverage of the Deep Web usually describes it as a vast hidden area, 5000 times larger than the surface web and filled with criminals. But that is actually false. The Deep Web is not a place, is not hidden and actually harbors zero criminal activity. It simply accounts for the unindexed content online, the raw data that Google doesn’t know about and doesn’t care about. For example, your online banking data is not stored anywhere on Google and your company may have an internal network that you use to communicate — this exists in the Deep Web.

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But there is a hidden Internet, a tiny little area called the Darknet or “dark web” and this small corner of the Internet is comprised primarily of information that is actively hidden from public view. And this is the area worth talking about.

So the Darknet — it can only be accessed by specific tools like Tor which is a special browser and service that masks your browsing activity and gets you into the darknet. Will you find crime? Yes, but not to the degree that the media has claimed and crime is neither the primary use of the darknet nor why it was built.

Now the internet was originally funded by the Department of Defense and as it became publicly facing with a worldwide web, new technologies were created to ensure its use for defense. So really the darknet is just another tool and it’s used by government agencies all over the world, along with journalists, dissidents in countries with hostile governments, whistleblowers, and just regular folks who want to create and utilize anonymous online communities, like the ones I spent so much time in back in the late ‘80s. And like any place where human beings congregate there is illegal activity, so let’s look at that.

There are black markets selling drugs and many of these — most of these, like the Silk Road, primarily sell marijuana. Altogether they represent a small fraction of the physical drug trade.

Guns? Yes, guns have been sold on the darknet; they’re not effectively. Sadly, why would you want to hassle with the darknet when you can buy a semi-automatic rifle anywhere from Walmart to Instagram?

There is child pornography on the darknet, though significantly less than is available on the surface web. And contrary to popular mythology, there was no tangible evidence that actual legitimate hitmen services have ever been offered on the darknet, or that significant terrorist activity has either. Though there are hope sites that claim these services. It will come as no surprise but hoax and scam sites proliferate on the darknet, operated both by law enforcement to lure the incautious digital criminal and by internet trolls who want to profit on this Deep Web hysteria.

So there are dark things on the darknet, though considerably less than is being reported and law enforcement is all over it. The truth is the darknet is a terrible place to conduct crime. It’s difficult to get into the darknet and it’s cumbersome to navigate once you’re in.

And by nature, digital criminals are amongst the most easily tracked and caught; it’s very hard to remain anonymous on the internet where the slightest mistake can expose your entire history of activity.

Similarly, digital currencies like Bitcoin are horrible tools for crime. While they are capable of being anonymized, by nature they are the least anonymous form of currency that exists, with every single transaction being permanently recorded in a digital ledger and the internet never forgets.

So why the cyber spin and hysteria in the media? Well, it sells; it’s good for clickbait. It makes for, you know, sexy TV shows and movies; it sells magazines.

But there is another agenda at work: to demonize the darknet and to scare people away from it. Now who would want to do that? People in power who believe that the privacy and anonymity that the darknet enables will cause them to lose control. And that’s where the Silk Road comes in, because however you choose to judge it, one of the chief motives for its creation was to fight back against that control.

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Now there’s a lot about the Silk Road; we’ll never know because it was built and operated in a hidden area of the internet by anonymous users. But we do know that in 2011, a young physics grad student from Austin, Texas named Ross Ulbricht created this online market. It was a brilliant combination of Tor which hid the site’s location and Bitcoin.

Now Ulbricht claims he created the Silk Road as an economic experiment, a test case to create an online market and forum that would allow its users to congregate with total freedom and anonymity. That is a radical idea. But as a technology service it was a watershed, and the Silk Road immediately attracted thousands of users. It also attracted law enforcement who had infiltrated the Silk Road from the very beginning, and ultimately Ross Ulbricht was arrested, tried and convicted on a handful of charges, including computer hacking, drug trafficking, money laundering, and even a kingpin charge which is usually reserved for massive drug cartels.

There had been initial charges of attempted murder but Ross Ulbricht was never indicted for any of those charges. And there are no murders that are believed to have been carried out. On May 29, 2015, Ross Ulbricht was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Now too many on the outside, the story of Silk Road and Ross Ulbricht was about nothing more than an online drug market that was shut down, with its creator severely punished for brazenly flaunting the law. But due to the relatively small amount of drugs being sold, and the fact that Ross Ulbricht was only charged with non-violent offenses, many people were stunned by the extremely harsh sentence it didn’t seem to fit the narrative.

However to those of us who were closer to the events, it fit the narrative fine, it was just a different narrative. You see another side of the story is that Ross Ulbricht found himself at the intersection of three of the most highly prosecuted areas of law in the United States today: cyber, the drug war, and financial regulation. Meaning the Silk Road angered a lot of people in power who feel threatened by the digital revolution in general and the darknet in specific.

Now that was the narrative that I set out to tell in my film, and thankfully due to my connections in this space and my experience with encryption, I was able to gain unprecedented access to the inner workings and architects of the Silk Road. And what I found surprised me. Every key player that I interviewed came from a political background, highly educated activists, significant members of the Occupy movement, radical crypto anarchists, libertarians, et cetera. None of these people were taking this risk by participating in Silk Road simply to sell drugs. Some of them had no interest whatsoever in drugs. They wanted to build the first large-scale anonymous online community. They wanted to circumvent entities that breached their privacy; they wanted to fight back against the drug war. To put it simply, they were taking this risk — enormous risk — for their ideals.

The truth about the Silk Road, as unpalatable as it may be, is that it was a political engine designed to enact change; that is not to exonerate this service, which was reckless and beyond the law, but simply to point out that for many of these people they felt so strongly about these issues that they were willing to risk their freedom to fight for them.