There's a certain absurdity that comes with venturing into the part of the Internet meant primarily for illegal transactions. This is what's colloquially called the "Deep Web," and it's usually described in fairly menacing terms: World Crunch calls it "the Internet's dark and scary underbelly" and the "largest black market ever to exist." Much of the Deep Web is accessible only by TOR, a "network of virtual tunnels" that allows users to connect to the Internet anonymously, without revealing their IP addresses or locations. It's full of websites Google doesn't touch: websites selling "drugs" and "hired assassins," for instance. Many articles deplore the Deep Web as a hub of child pornography, arms trafficking and terrorism. And yet, taking a journey into the Deep Web feels less like a crawl into something "dark and scary" and more like a trip down the rabbit hole with Alice.
My main reaction as I load up TOR to visit the Silk Road (made famous by Gawker as "the underground website where you can buy any drug imaginable") is that it's rather like going back to the Internet in the '90s. I can make a cup of tea in the time it takes a page to load. URLs are given names like www.dkn255hz262ypmii.onion so that they're deliberately impossible to remember; they need to be bookmarked immediately or they'll become lost in the void. And entering Silk Road requires a username, a passphrase and a PIN -- which, like the URLs, you must not forget under any circumstances, because there is no way to retrieve it.
The Silk Road is probably the most famous website on the "Deep Web." It's been called the "Amazon.com of illegal drugs." The metaphor is apt; the site is designed like Amazon, down to the shopping cart and clean white background. But unlike Amazon's welcome page, the Silk Road's home page displays contraband.
The site is best known for its drugs marketplace, so I head there first. Along with Cannabis (by far the most popular), there are listings for Dissociatives, Ecstasy, Opioids, Precursors, Prescription, Psychedelics, Stimulants and Other. The page for "All Drugs" displays various brands of weed, two pills of Adderall, a 100-gram MDMA crystal, 25 grams of crystal meth and a large pack of untaxed cigarettes. I'm the wrong person to go on this site: Ever since taking Ritalin in middle school, I haven't had an interest in drugs; nothing mind-altering looks remotely tempting. Lucky for me, the Silk Road sells more than just contraband chemicals.
The site divides its illegal wares into several categories, and the second largest, after "Drugs," is "Books." The books come in three types: legally banned books (i.e., ones that are banned in some countries), pirated ebooks sold in bulk, and books that look like they belong in Internet banner ads (the kind that help you learn 10 languages in 10 days or help you read minds). The legally banned books look the most appealing; that, I think, is the problem with legally banned books.
All wares in Silk Road are priced in Bitcoins, an Internet currency invented by experimenters eager to eliminate the state control of cash. One Bitcoin is worth approximately $13.67 US dollars, which causes everything on Silk Road to look unreasonably cheap. In the "forgeries" section, for instance, holographic magnet-striped UV-safe fake IDs look vaguely tempting at 14 bitcoins, until I do the calculations and realize that's nearly $200.
However, someone is selling a complete anthology of Calvin & Hobbes for .057 Bitcoin, which is slightly less than $1. This is something I would, under normal circumstances, buy.
At this point, a nice woman from the AOL/Huffington Post Legal department warns me that I shouldn't buy anything from the site, lest the police hold AOL or The Huffington Post responsible for crimes. While this is discouraging with regards to the Calvin & Hobbes collection, I decide that in the spirit of exploration, I should try filling my wallet with Bitcoins anyway.
This turns out to be a mistake.
Bitcoins, despite being a currency built on the Internet, are nearly impossible to obtain in a timely fashion. Due to fear of chargeback fraud, most reputable Bitcoin sites won't take PayPal or credit cards, which leaves the option of bank wiring or a deposit system such as Moneygram. I decide to use Moneygram and compound my mistake. I deposit $20, am charged an additional $7 in conversion fees, and end up with $18.57 worth of Bitcoins, according to the online "wallet" where I'm storing the currency (I don't know where the extra $1.43 went). For a system that claims it should eliminate the middleman and hidden fees, Bitcoin...doesn't.
By the time I get my Bitcoin, the Calvin & Hobbes anthology is gone. I probe the Silk Road forums for other non-illegal purchases I can make with Bitcoin and find a Baklava shop and a Mexican restaurant.
Surprising myself (and likely anyone else who's ever read about the Deep Web), I also find that the Silk Road forums are delightful.
"Greetings and welcome to the Silk Road," says a message from a figure known to many as the Dread Pirate Roberts, who is reportedly much pursued by law enforcement. This is the Silk Road's de facto CEO, though unlike most CEOs, he apologizes for "coming off as stiff" and runs a regular book club on a pinned thread in the forums. The Dread Pirate's welcome message continues: "You may be shocked to find listings here that are outlawed in your jurisdiction. That doesn't mean Silk Road is lawless. In fact, we have a very strict code of conduct that, if given a chance, most people I think would agree with. Our basic rules are to treat others as you would wish to be treated, mind your own business, and don't do anything to hurt or scam someone else."
He declares that certain goods are never allowed on the Silk Road: "Child pornography, stolen goods, assassinations and stolen personal information, just to name a few." Forumgoers are quick to pounce on those who imply they might harm others with goods they sell or request. A thread where an anonymous user offers assassinations-for-hire, for example, is dealt with in a string of crude, written attacks.
Despite my disinterest in drugs and the absurdity of all websites that facilitate illegal transactions, Silk Road is a fascinating place to visit, certainly different enough from the searchable Internet to be worth a click by any intrepid digital explorer. I'm not exactly sure what I'll be doing with my Bitcoins now that I've bought them -- but if I ever go onto the Silk Road again, I'll definitely be checking for Calvin & Hobbes.