When the FBI arrested the mastermind behind “Silk Road,” the world’s largest online black market for drugs, they gummed up a beloved tradition of the marketplace’s devoted fans: The Silk Road book club.
The Dread Pirate Roberts, founder of Silk Road, began his drug bazaar’s book club in 2011. In a thread on Silk Road’s online forums, he wrote:
Knowledge is power, and reading is one of the best ways to expand your knowledge. Each week, we will select a reading designed to expand our understanding of the issues that face the Silk Road community and have a group discussion on the material. My hope is that a high level of discourse will be fostered, and as a community, we can become strong in our beliefs, with a coherent message and voice as the world begins to take notice of us.
The world soon took notice of Silk Road, but not for its contentious discussion of Murray Rothbard’s "Anatomy of the State." This past fall, Roberts -- allegedly a San Francisco native named Ross William Ulbricht -- was arrested on drug trafficking and money laundering charges. Silk Road was closed.
But the book club would not be silenced. Just a month later, a second Silk Road came online. The book club was back, this time run by a Silk Road senior moderator calling himself Inigo.
And then Inigo -- allegedly Andrew Michael Jones of Charles City, Va. -- got arrested.
That still didn't stop the Silk Road book club.
Instead, the members shifted their discussions to a private chat room, one ostensibly unconnected to the Silk Road. "I feel very strongly that the legacy of Inigo should remain vivid," posted club member AdamSmith. "Education is liberation."
When people talk about the "Deep Web" -- sites that aren't accessible via Google, sites that include online bazaars like Silk Road and more pornography than anyone could peruse in a lifetime -- you don't immediately think of a bunch of bibliophiles. Then you spend some time browsing, and you find that a significant fraction of Deep Web denizens are obsessed with reading.
But don't expect discussions of Jane Austen or the latest National Book Award winner. And don't expect tidy links to Amazon.com. The Deep Web is known for its anarchist-hacker bent, and the links you'll find on the Silk Road forums are often to pirated books.
Much of the literature sought by Deep Web crawlers is focused on outlaw topics: conspiracy theories, computer hacking. And many forums and Deep Web book collections emphasize that their books have been banned elsewhere.
On the Hidden Wiki, a directory of links leading to Deep Web sites, there are several portals to illegal "libraries" -- sites with names like "The Imperial Library of Trantor," stocked with pirated, scanned copies of tens of thousands of books.
"In 2014, the facist [sic] US regime bans books from schools!" reads a red 24-point headline greeting users of one such website, the Tor Library. Such rhetoric is not uncommon: Illegal libraries are quick to remind you of the many times governments and other institutions have forbidden certain titles. The landing page of the Tor Library proudly displays Alice Walker's "The Color Purple," Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man," Sherman Alexie's "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" and several other classics that the site's author repeatedly notes are banned in some American classrooms.
All in all, it makes a strange kind of sense that the outlaws who prowl Silk Road share ideological stripes with the guerrilla librarians so passionate about the right to free information that they scan and share books where Google can't find them.
The Dread Pirate Roberts, ever-leery of authority, certainly thought so. Upon launching the book club, he wrote on the Silk Road forums: "There is so much double-speak and misinformation in the world today that we must take our education into our own hands and defend our minds with reason and critical thinking."