SXSW 2015 Interview: Alex Winter and Lyn Ulbricht on Deep Web

Alex Winter’s previous documentary, the Napster story Downloaded, came to SXSW in 2013. Two years later, Winter returns with another tech doc, Deep Web, the story of Ross Ulbricht, who was convicted of operating an online black market as the hacker Dread Pirate Roberts. The Silk Road utilized coding behind the internet we commonly know so that people could deal drugs anonymously, and even allegedly hired hitmen. Ulbricht is awaiting sentencing on May 15, 2015.

Winter and Lyn Ulbricht, Ross’s mother, were in Austin for the film’s SXSW premiere so we got to discuss Ross’s trial and the technology that led to his prosecution, including the surprising anonymity of Bitcoin. Epix will air Deep Web on television On May 31st at 8 p.m. (PT/ET).


CraveOnline: Does the recent victory for net neutrality impact this case at all?

Alex Winter: No, I wouldn’t say so. I’ll let Lyn speak for herself obviously, but no, I don’t think so. A, it happened very, very recently. Both things happened recently. I think that it is a great thing. The issue with net neutrality, just like the issue with the fight against Tor and the fight against anonymity and privacy online, part of the same battle. A lot of the same people don’t want these things for very similar reasons. The fight keeps going. I don’t think this is the end of the battle against net neutrality. I think it will assist but it just got snuck through when nobody was looking, right? I think these fights are going to keep going. You get little victories, you get pushback, but I don’t see this being over on any side unfortunately.


How is Bitcoin anonymous? Don’t you have to set up an account to receive money and convert it to real money?

Alex Winter: Bitcoin is the least anonymous currency that exists, literally. Bitcoin is a trackable hard baked currency that gets baked into this thing called the block chain. Now, that’s complicated because Bitcoin is also capable of being anonymized because it’s digital. That makes it the least trackable currency that exists so it is both the most and the least trackable currency that exists. That may make your head explode. It’s just because most people don’t understand Bitcoin so they tend to fall on one side or the other and they’re usually wrong on both sides. It’s extremely complicated. A Bitcoin exchange, if I use my credit card to buy a shirt on a store that uses Bitcoin, then my purchase of that Bitcoin and that Bitcoin from my Bitcoin wallet is trackable back to my credit card if that’s what I used to pay for it.

But a Bitcoin wallet is not necessarily trackable. That Bitcoin actual exchange is not necessarily trackable if it’s using an anonymizer or if it’s hacked. So the answer to your question is both. Bitcoin is both the least anonymous and the most anonymous currency that exists.


So it’s actually a modification that hackers made that allows them to use Bitcoin untraced?

Alex Winter: Partly, or the process of how the currency is used, meaning if I use an anonymous credit card with an anonymous account to purchase my Bitcoin, and I have an anonymous wallet, then it isn’t trackable to me.


Lyn, what is going on between now and May, the looming sentencing?

Lyn Ulbricht: Ross is going to be sentenced May 15. The defense has just filed post-trial motions. Based on several things that they are protesting about the trial, are calling for a retrial. Personally I don’t expect that the judge is going to do that. Otherwise, that’s all I know except just waiting for that May 15 and hoping and praying for the minimum which actually is 20 years potentially, because they can fold it into the Kingpin charge. My fear is what a couple lawyers have said to me which is prosecutors always push for the maximum.


They want to make an example of him.

Lyn Ulbricht: And it looks good on their resume. “We got this big guy.” What they’re talking about is the equivalent of life for totally nonviolent charges.


Did Deep Web overlap with the Napster documentary Downloaded?

Alex Winter: It did in a number of ways. It didn’t literally. It did figuratively in that I was meeting a lot of people who were involved in this world. On the activist side primarily, on the encryption technology side and obviously the global communities that are being built within what they’re calling the Darknet are very similar to the communities that Fanning was interested in building with Napster. They are also a natural outgrowth of the communities that have been constructed since the dawn of the internet and first appeared during the BBS/Usenet era. All of these communities are very similar. A lot of the people are the same players. There are people in the Darknet today that I met online in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s in the BBS/Usenet communities. So this is really a natural evolutionary process. It’s mostly social activists or journalist dissidents or people who are using it to create free marketplaces, but they tend to be a lot of the same people that have been around for a while.


Did you want to visualize the deep web in the film as a physical place?

Alex Winter: The film is specifically mostly talking about the Darknet which is absolutely a tangible physical place. There are now different services to get you into the Darknet but up until now it’s mostly been through Tor. It is a terrain. It is categorical. It has a certain amount of bandwidth. It’s used by everybody from the NSA to journalists, dissidents, marketeers, whatever. People who want to be online privately and they’re there on the Darknet.


What were some facets and tangents of the case that didn’t make it into the film?

Alex Winter: I would say I found the more I dug into Ross’s story and the more I realized how he had gotten caught between these two really core poles of issues, the digital punitive issues and the drug war punitive issues, I really cleared away a lot of the rest of the movie and focused on that because it was so significant and, I felt, so unspoken about that it needed the full weight of the movie to just focus on. I would have been doing it a disservice if I would’ve gone off and looked at more of the surveillance state stuff or the journalists and dissident stuff. I’ve shot a lot of that stuff and met all those people, but it’s already confusing enough to people how this stuff works. I didn’t want people to walk away feeling like they’d been at a buffet table when you’re dealing with people’s lives.


Did this naturally feel like it would be much more serious than the Napster documentary?

Alex Winter: Yes, obviously. This is their life and they’re in it. It’s been a lot of work. I would be lying if I said I didn’t get more emotionally caught up in this than I normally do with my work. It’s heavy. Being in the courtroom was really hard, frankly. These issues have a lot of theoretical and legal complexity to them but you’re just dealing with human beings and it’s hard. People are getting thrown away in jail. It’s very depressing what’s going on.


Did getting emotional about it make you a better filmmaker?

Alex Winter: I don’t know. Thankfully I have other people that I’m working with. I think that it drove the ideals of the story. Lyn and I have talked about it’s not like we’re going to make some kind of manifesto to try to clear Ross’s name. That’s something I think would frankly have alienated a lot of people, but I think that the emotionality drives the integrity of it in a way. You sort of lead more with what you think is the right story to be telling from what information you’ve gathered as opposed to what may be more commercial.


Lyn, how is Ross doing in prison right now?

Lyn Ulbricht: It’s been tough since the trial. He was optimistic about the trial because he knew much of the evidence that should have been presented and was suppressed. He was optimistic about the outcome so it was a huge letdown obviously. But, that said, Ross is a very naturally positive and resilient person. He’s very strong and I’d say he’s doing as well as anyone could be doing under the circumstances. During trial he was tutoring his cellmate in math so he could pass his GED. He’s now teaching himself Spanish so he can communicate with half the people in there who don’t speak English. He’s studying quantum physics. He’s trying to make the best out of the situation while he also of course is looking forward to appeal and working with the lawyers. That said, it’s tough. It’s very tough.


I imagine some prisoners are allowed computers for rehabilitation and education. Is Ross allowed any access?

Lyn Ulbricht: No because of the hacking conspiracy charge. He doesn’t even get e-mail which is terrible because it really cuts him off. He gets limited phone calls.


It’s an odd transition to a fun comedy sequel, but when I spoke to Keanu for John Wick I was surprised to hear there was some trouble with the Bill and Ted 3 financing. Were there not people ready to go when you decided you wanted to come back?

Alex Winter: Oh, absolutely not. Not at all. We sat on my patio at my house and decided to make another one and that was it. There were no money people. It was just the four of us. We cooked up a story that we really liked and then Chris and Ed went and wrote a script. Then we’ve set upon the long, arduous, painful, bloody journey of trying to find someone who wanted to pay for it. That journey has come to an end. I can’t say more than that but it’s come to an end in a good way. Hollywood being what it is, it may never get made but we have found our money, our director and our producer.


Since Orion doesn’t exist anymore, had they sold off the rights to the franchise?

Alex Winter: Oh yeah, the first one was Dino. The first one was De Laurentiis and then Nelson Entertainment bought it. The movies have never been studio movies. They’ve been picked up sometimes by studios but the other two were independent movies.


The studios who distributed them didn’t retain any rights?

Alex Winter: MGM has the rights.


Is the script done at this point?

Alex Winter: Script is done.


Check Out: Alex Winter on Downloaded and Bill & Ted 3


Were there some aspects of Deep Web that I didn’t ask specifically about that you’d like to discuss?

Alex Winter: I just think that the overall driver of this thing is trying to have an opportunity to introduce indelicate but really important issues into the public narrative around internet and digital rights, privacy rights, the punitive nature of the drug war. The movie really gets into a lot of issues that don’t get discussed enough. I think we’re hoping on our end that on whatever level, it allows more debate to enter into the public consciousness than is currently really in it. I was really taken aback by the disconnect between the facts and Napster and the truths of Napster when I did that story. This one is just gigantically larger in stakes, almost overwhelmingly so. I can’t speak for Lyn. I can only say for myself, I’ve been around a little while. I’m not naive but it is harrowing to be in the middle of a story that’s this important that gets so little coverage.


To be at the trial and to see literally nobody there, not a single camera from a mainstream news outlet, was pretty shocking. And a little disturbing actually. So as much as this can get exposed and people can at least start to think, talk, debate, whatever, that’s the hope.

Lyn Ulbricht: Alex alluded to the trial. I guess I was shocked at how unfair it was. Evidence that was favorable to Ross, exculpatory evidence, was suppressed. The defense witnesses were blocked with very, I thought, flimsy reasons. The Bitcoin witness was blocked because the court said, “Oh, the jury understands Bitcoin just fine” which I don’t think so. So he wasn’t able to refute the testimony of the government’s Bitcoin witness. There’s a computer witness that was blocked because the court said this case doesn’t require special technical knowledge. It’s extremely complicated. So that kind of thing.

The defense attorney was hamstrung in his ability to cross-examine and establish reasonable doubt by evidentiary rulings that tethered him to a particular very narrow path that had to follow the prosecution’s narrative. It was an exceptionally narrow path and he’s called for mistrial several times and now has submitted these post-trial motions calling for a retrial because it was a violation of Ross’s due process rights. That, I think, is a really important thing. If we don’t have fair trials, we’re in trouble.

The other thing about this case is the precedent that’s been set going into the digital age. There are several precedents that don’t bode well for our freedom in the digital age.


It’s supposed to be a jury of your peers. How many of the 12 jurors were expert computer technicians?

Lyn Ulbricht: There were two under 40.

Alex Winter: But they were not allowed. They evicted anyone who had any computer knowledge.

Lyn Ulbricht: There were a couple. One was an IT girl who worked for Social Security. I don’t know if I consider that IT. She was one of the experts and one of the people under 40 but a lot of them, no, they didn’t understand it.


Deep Web will air at 8 p.m. (ET/PT) on May 31st on EPIX.

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Best Episode Ever and The Shelf Space Awards. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.