Silk Road is 'Napster all over again,' says 'Deep Web' filmmaker

The director of a new film about Silk Road says he found striking parallels between the issues surrounding the online drug bazaar and Napster, the original music-sharing service.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
3 min read

Silk Road was an online bazaar for drugs and other contraband. "Deep Web"/Screenshot by CNET

AUSTIN, Texas -- Alex Winter thinks some things haven't changed. Some people are still quick to villainize what they don't understand.

The documentary filmmaker premiered his latest movie, "Deep Web," at the South by Southwest film, tech and music festival here Sunday. The movie is about Silk Road, the online bazaar that sold drugs and other contraband over the dark Web. The subject parallels that of his 2013 film "Downloaded," on a seemingly more benign Internet service: Napster.

In both cases, the establishment misunderstood technology and vilified the people behind the service, he said.

"Deep Web" is a look at Silk Road and its alleged founder Ross Ulbricht. In February, Ulbricht was convicted on seven charges, including drug trafficking and conspiracy.

Prosecutors at the trial said Ulbricht oversaw Silk Road operations as it grew into a $1.2 billion drug empire known by users as an Amazon of sorts for narcotics, with buyer ratings and money-back guarantees. The FBI also said Ulbricht hired people over the Internet to kill those trying to extort cash from him, though there's no evidence that anyone attempted those hits and Ulbricht wasn't charged with murder solicitation. Ulbricht could face life in prison at his May sentencing.

To Winter, the Silk Road case was strikingly similar to what the music-swapping service Napster went through in 1999. That startup was shut down after a federal judge agreed with the music industry that the service encouraged "wholesale infringement" against music copyrights. Winter's last movie, 2013's "Downloaded," focused on Napster's legacy.

"I thought, oh my God, it's Napster all over again," said Winter, in an interview Monday. He's talking about the reactions to both of the services -- from the press, the lawyers, the government. He said he was inspired to make the film after reading an article that oversimplified the story and denigrated the people behind sites like Silk Road.

And in both instances, he said the people involved in the court cases didn't quite understand the technologies. For Napster, it was peer-to-peer technology that allowed people to swap files. For Silk Road, it was software like Tor and the cryptocurrency Bitcoin that allowed buyers and sellers to remain anonymous.

But the similarities go deeper than that, he said. Both Napster and Silk Road created fanatic online communities that were able to grow and scale. Napster eventually closed but other services, like LimeWire and eventually BitTorrent, sprouted up.

A new iteration of Silk Road, called Silk Road 2.0 sprang up too. It was seized by the FBI in November, but Winter said new services will always pop up. "The toothpaste is out of the tube," he said. "It's a technological era."

The music business eventually came to terms with the tech industry. Apple opened the iTunes music store in 2003, and Spotify, the streaming-music company, launched in the United States in 2011.

For the "dark net," a nickname for the secretive corners of the Internet where services like Silk Road have resided, it clearly gets more complicated. But Winter touts its legitimate uses. He said he uses anonymity technology like Tor to do mundane things like online banking.

"It's really like having drapes in your house," he said. "Or having a door on your bathroom."