# Who is Seth Finkelstein?
Born and raised in Bronx, New York. Attended Bronx High School of
Science. Placed eighth in the nation in the Westinghouse National
Science Talent Search. Went to MIT, graduated with two bachelor's
degrees, a double major in Mathematics and Physics. Didn't get into
the graduate programs I wanted, so abandoned my attempt to become a
world-class mathematical physicist. Went into computer programming as
a career because it was a very congenial profession for me (no suit
and tie, can sleep late, good money, lots of tolerance for deviations
from the corporate man).
Worked as a system administrator and consultant programmer,
being a contractor at MIT for several years. Set up one of the first
freedom of expression websites at the dawn of the World-Wide-Web. Wanted
to keep the Internet free. Started decrypting censorware since it was
originally being touted even by free-speech groups, and the rest is
history (winning an EFF Pioneer Award, originally being touted even by free-speech groups, and the rest is
history (winning an EFF Pioneer Award,
I'm pushing 40 now, very much disenchanted with all that
happened to me from the civil-liberties efforts, and trying to survive
# Is censorship always wrong?
Everyone wants to censor something. The problem is that
everyone has different things they want to censor. Sex, violence, hate
speech, blasphemy, counter-revolutionary propaganda, DVD decryption
algorithms, etc. For each one of these, someone can be found who will
gladly explain why it must be suppressed for the good of society.
This leads into what I call the "values" argument, or the
"Chinese Menu" theory (pick one from column A, two from column B). The
"values" argument is passionately devoted to determining which items
from the list should be suppressed (column A), and what authorities
have the right to do it (column B). And then attacking anyone who has
any other settings, as being morally wrong.
In America, the usual start of the menu runs that parents
have the right to control what their children read (especially versus
sex), employers have the right to control their employees, but
government does not have any right to control their citizens (especially versus political speech). For e.g. China or Saudi Arabia,
the settings are somewhat different where government is concerned.
These days, I try to avoid having the "values" argument with
people. I'm not that interested in it, and I find that it's generally
unproductive. Too often, its only purpose is as an ad-hominem attack,
as a basis to stop thinking about anything.
# But is it even possible to conduct censorship online? John Gilmore
has stated that 'the Net interprets censorship as damage, and routes
around it'. Where is he going wrong?
But what if censorship is in the router?
We're seeing that literally now, with router companies making
equipment which goes into building The Great Firewall Of China. After
all, what is a censorware program but censorship in the router?
I'm always dubious about arguments of technological
determinism, especially those which conclude that the speaker's own
political beliefs are historically inevitable. Especially here, as
I've seen a great deal of very odd double-think, which simultaneously
holds that censorship can't work for governments, yet such control is
cheap and easy and readily available for parents.
If censorship doesn't work for governments controlling
citizens in China, then it won't work for parents controlling children
in America. On the other hand, if it's possible for parents to control
children's reading in America, then it's possible for governments to
control citizen's reading in China.
It doesn't matter which values you think are "right" and which
are "wrong" in the above. It's an architectural implication. This is
the opposite of the "values" argument above, what I call the "implications"
argument. Either the Internet can be censored, or it can't. Pick one
and follow the implications of that assumption. But either way, there
are difficult results. Repeating personal values as arguments against
those results is, in my view, useless.
# Phil Zimmermann told me that
the September 11-attacks made him think over his decision to release PGP
as freeware. However, he reached the conclusion that it was
right to release PGP and that society is better off with strong
encryption. Ian Clarke goes to the same school of thought and told
me that censorship is the enemy of freedom and understanding, and
therefore the friend of terrorism. What is your take on the balance
between censorship, encryption and national security?
I view the overall problem in the following way:
Statistically, real threats are rare, but ambition and corruption are
common. Overwhelmingly, the purpose of censorship is not the
protection of national security, but the protection of individual
careers. That's not ideology, but mathematics. Because there are very,
very, few true national secrets, but a huge amounts of information
that someone would like to bury for one reason or another.
A sterling example is the military tribunal for the WW II
saboteurs. What was being protected there was job security (of the
FBI) not national security. Something similar may be going on now with
the Guantanamo Bay bay prisoners. It's not that there's extremely
sensitive information involved. Rather, nobody wants to be the official
who signs-off on releasing the one person in a large group who might
be a bona-fide terrorist, but there's no solid evidence to prove
it. Yet they also then have a problem of explaining why they're
holding many people if they have no evidence against them. That's
embarrassing. It's far easier to hope the whole mess can be dumped in
somebody else's lap, preferably under a different Presidential
administration entirely. This is the difference between a career
problem and a national security problem.
There's a large amount of fear-mongering, and attacking of
easy targets, even if they have very little to do with real solutions.
(Bruce Schneier has been writing
much about this recently). Trying to figure out, say, what to do
about the prospect that the extremely repressive Saudi Arabia monarchy
might collapse under a wave of fundamentalist Islamic rebellion -
that's hard. Giving a speech about "cyber-terrorism" - that's
easy. Developing contacts within close-knit radical groups
is difficult. Feeding lots of garbage into data-mining programs is
Thus, if we had extensive censorship and communications-scanning,
we wouldn't be any safer. We might only think we were, because of more
# What is the purpose of the Infothought Blog?
I thought I'd see how blogging worked for me. I tried to do it
along the lines of combining columnist-type postings, and inside,
behind-the-scenes, views of what's involved in free-speech activism.
I didn't want to talk about day-to-day life events, or family, or the
specifics of any paying job. I didn't think there was anything
especially meaningful for me to say there, or that I particularly
wanted to say. I was taking my puff of the blog-bubble.
# Is it worthwhile - to you?
It's borderline. As any sort of influence platform, it's
pretty much a failure. While some people might be happy to be shouting
to the wind, and consider having any readers at all to be a success, I
go by overall impact. On that basis, it's clearly of negligible effect.
The main benefit on those terms has mostly been in having a
reply to all the people who have heard the blog hype, and suggest to
me "Why don't you start a blog?".
# What was the Censorware project?
For myself, I conceived of it as an endeavor which would
finally provide for me the social (and perhaps legal) defense, and
organizational protection, which I desperately needed to support my
censorware decryption work.
When I started doing censorware decryption, civil-liberties
organizations were utterly unsupportive of me. Every group, ALA, ACLU,
Steele version), said they would not help me, and
in fact were critical of me to varying degrees. This had to do with a
very complicated politics (I called it "Censorware Is Our Savior") of
a strategy of promoting censorware. Originally, censorware was to be
used in a
legal argument, but that very quickly became a
social argument for
As James Tyre stated:
Why has Seth been so secretive? He can explain better than I, but in
a nutshell, think about how he's been flamed by Brock [Meeks] and
Declan [McCullagh] over the years, despite what they knew.
And yes, think even more about how brutal [Mike] Godwin has been on
Seth, and then know that [Mike] Godwin has known this little secret
from day one, and he has known it from within the framework of an
attorney-client relation which he briefly had with Seth. ...
I have to stress this, because it's critical to understand
the tenor of the time. I'll assume the audience here has heard of
the RIAA lawsuits. Imagine if the most famous net.legend EFF attorney
was writing commentary pieces saying that while he didn't enforce his
own copyrights, file-sharers shouldn't do the crime if they couldn't
do the time, and anyway, they were a bunch of CyberBolsheviks who
wanted to destroy private property. And said attorney was personally
targeting the main programmer who was creating the file-sharing
technology, using confidential information derived from attempts to
get legal help, leading to serious discussion with peer-to-peer
lawyers if that attorney was going to privately feed privileged
information to the RIAA (I'm not given to bluster - there's only
a handful of times in my life when I've considered taking legal action
against someone, and this was one of them - I didn't, but I explored it).
The Censorware Project was, to me, a way of getting the help I
couldn't get from any big organization - I'd now have one organization
where I could count on that help (sadly, it didn't turn out that way).
# It seems like the project went down in flames. Can
you provide Greplaw's readers with a summary of your version of the
To over-simplify greatly, it came down to a conflict between whether
the reputation and resources of Censorware Project were going to be
used to support and defend me, in order to discourage the prospect of
a lawsuit for my decrypting censorware, versus promoting Michael Sims
in his ambition to obtain a journalism job. I lost. He won. Note these
issues are not trivial. When people dismiss it as "personal", I say
"Yes, I personally didn't want to get sued."
I'll note the basic objective proof that I'm telling the truth:
Michael Sims domain-hijacked the Censorware Project website and
bounced all its mail, as soon as he had gotten a full-time
journalism job at Slashdot. No name-calling of me will
change this fact.
The details could fill a book. Per above, there's much very
unintuitive politics which needs to be understood, otherwise I do
appear as if I'm an insane raving lunatic (remember, a cheap shot is
always an easy rebuttal). My joke about this, is that sometimes I
don't believe all that has happened to me myself, and I lived through
# Do you think open code projects may face the same fate?
For an example close to home, look no further than that
three-ring circus and traveling zoo which is the "RSS wars".
There was nothing unique to the meltdown of the Censorware
Project. Many activist groups have seen someone try to pull a coup
d'etat. There's an unwillingness to think about the problem, but when
there's something of value, someone may try to steal it.
# Some Greplaw readers may be interested in starting similar
collaborative efforts. Can you give any tips on how to avoid the
There's a saying, the proper attitude to any contract is "Assume all
parties drop dead tomorrow and their heirs hate each other."
Even if you're the best of friends at the start, just the prospect of
money and/or power can change people. Corruption doesn't happen like
waking up one day and suddenly deciding you should rule the world
(accompanied by maniacal evil-genius laughter). Rather, it's a slow
process, where by degrees someone comes to believe that their own
interests are worth sacrificing anyone or anything else, often
rationalized as being for the greater good (which somehow tends to
work out to having the undeserving other people suffer, while the
self-anointed one benefits).
But that formal arrangement is hard to do. Most projects won't amount
to anything, and generally people aren't thinking about dangers down
the road. It's very unpleasant to say to someone "Of course you're my
friend now, but temptation may change you in the future - I don't
trust we'll be friends forever."
Don't ever think "They can't get away with it". They can. Once
someone has made the decision that for their own gain, they are
willing to betray the trust that their friends have placed in them,
then they will not scruple to lie to advance that goal. Remember,
they've already decided to be a thief, so what do they have to lose?
From a logical point of view, it's to their advantage to generate as
much smoke as possible, since they can only gain from it. People will
say they don't want to get involved, or the truth is in the middle, or
everyone associated isn't perfect, etc. etc. Which all means the thief
Jonathan Wallace wrote:
I was naively astonished by these. If the ACLU's webmaster had trashed
the organization's site, I think everyone would pretty well recognize
he was a Bad Character and Not To Be Trusted. As much more minor
players, ... no-one could be bothered to take a stand for us. There
was nothing to be gained.
# You won the EFF Pioneer Award 2001
much because of your tireless anticensorship work over the
years. Has this been a unique selling point for you as an consultant?
None whatsoever. The only companies who would care about
something like that, are either those looking to add some luster to an
advisory board, or to get themselves some civil-libertarian cover for
shady dealings (e.g. like spamming companies who might hire name
spam-fighters as window-dressing). And given how the burst bubble has
dampened start-up activity, I haven't had any offers from either
If the employer knew me, they knew my skills, and the Pioneer
Award was superfluous. If they didn't know me, the near-insurmountable
hurdle was getting past the human-resources buzzword-bingo,
against the dozens of other out-of-work candidates.
# Any other benefits from the award?
In fact, there were some negative unintended consequences.
People seemed to think that now I had a funding grant, a PR agent, and
a lifetime supply of lawyers. None of that was true. In reality, I was
out of work, either wrong or reneged-upon regarding major press support,
and "triaged" out from higher-priority legal issues.
Perhaps the only benefit so far has been some measure of
validation and respect. I don't want to discount that. But I've joked
that while I treasure my Pioneer Award, I can neither eat it, wear
it, nor sleep in it.
# Reading the Infothought blog, I sometimes get the feeling that you
are slightly bitter over not making any money from your
anti-censorship work. Right or wrong?
A little garbled. I never expected to get rich from
anti-censorship work. I think you're mixing-up two different aspects.
There are certain roles (professor-type, lobbyist, policy analyst,
journalist, etc) which are sustainable, in that they are activities
which can be repeated to the benefit of the person's life. If you're
running the Make-A-Better-Net foundation, you can always continue the
Make-A-Better-Net foundation. If you're doing a job (writer, academic,
industry, policy), then you can advance in that job. If you're
developing the GWhizBang system, you can continue working on the
But if you're playing Russian Roulette with lawsuits, and you keep
playing Russian Roulette with lawsuits, the eventual outcome of
continuing that process is likely to be extremely detrimental to one's
life. It's not sustainable.
I used to say that the work which went into some of the censorware
investigations would have fueled an IPO during the boom years. I've
never gotten a cent for all my free-speech work (including
project-managing and doing yeoman's service for the evidence
submission in the
Mainstream Loudoun library censorware case, in fact at the time,
there wasn't even a public thank-you!) I gave up a lot of consulting
opportunities because I believed the civil-liberties volunteer work was
Then after I won the
Pioneer Award, I repeated that
devoted myself full-time to unpaid activist censorware research. I thought
I was going to be a big hero, in an affirmative DMCA case. In fact, I
did exactly the decryption of the N2H2/BESS censorware which was
later a theoretical matter in the
Edelman v. N2H2 case (I wasn't part of that case for some very
complicated strategy reasons, which I shouldn't discuss further).
Well, I ended-up with a great deal of research I couldn't publish,
because I just couldn't muster the necessary legal and press backing
to protect myself against the prospect of a lawsuit (I got close a few
times, but never all which was needed). I was completely out of work
for an extensive, discouraging, stretch. For a very long time, I was
being personally attacked every single day due to Michael Sims
hijacking of all the previous links to the Censorware Project website to
instead return his rants against the group (with famous net lawyer
Mike Godwin lending his reputation and credibility to it all), while
Slashdot continued to de facto support him with a job and a
It's impolitic and unpleasant to say this, but - it wasn't worth it.
That work I did wasn't valued, and I am very bitter over what it cost
me to do it.
Frankly, if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn't. I think I would
have been far better off, on many levels, if I had concentrated on
raking in the bubble-money instead. In retrospect, I deeply regret my
# If someone with a big pile of money reads this and sympathizes with
you, what would you like him to do with a part of his pile and what
would his return on investment be?
Give me a big fat grant. MacArthur Foundation level. The
return on investment would be a dividend of keeping the Internet free.
More generally, I think the funding of technically-oriented
people is far under-explored in terms of yield per unit resources. I'm
not taking the ultra-geek position here that purely technical projects
trump traditional politics. Rather, I'm saying that many pure policy
analysis efforts are much further along the diminishing-returns curve.
It's important to tell Congress what we think, in standard channels.
But after a while, telling them yet again has a rapidly diminishing
chance of changing any minds.
Every time I discuss any policy work, I hear I'm a
non-traditional candidate. That is, either you're an industry hired
gun, or going through the stages of a law and policy career. All of
which is very constraining. When I went to Washington DC to give
I couldn't even get my travel expenses covered. I had to
pay it all out of my own pocket (while unemployed!). I'm not the first
person to suggest this, but I think having a way for more
technologists to play a role in being heard when and where the laws
are made, would be vastly beneficial.
# Googling "Seth Finkelstein" I got the impression that you have made
quite an amount of enemies over the years. You are also often
getting a lot of heat in Greplaw's comments system when you are
featured Why is Seth Finkelstein controversial? Or is it your line
of work that is controversial?
It's a combination of factors. I've attempted to do things
which would try the patience of a saint, and I am not a saint. In
fact, I'm a very bad martyr. I stand in awe of freedom-fighters in
countries where they risk prison, torture, even death. They're better
men and women than I am.
Everyone involved in politics gets some amount of heat. For
ye have the trolls always with you. But I've too often played way out
of my power-league, and been an ant among elephants. In terms of "If
you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen", it's important to
remember that was being uttered by one of the most powerful men on
the planet. If you're literally a leader of the world, some carping
comes with the territory. And you've got a bully-pulpit to give your
side of the story. In contrast, if you're doing things which are
unsustainable, might get you sued, draining your life - and getting
smeared and flamed left and right, with detractors perhaps even
helping opponents to sue you, well, that's not quite comparable.
I'd also do better if I were cheerleading the simple,
popular, demagoguery: We're so smart. They're so stupid. God, err, the
Net, is on our side. It's a New Era. We "get it", they're old-think
dinosaurs. Business good. Government bad. The freedom-loving
CypherSpaceNauts, fighting the evil Fedcrats. etc. etc.
Trying to be a doer rather than a talker has certain generic
difficulties. There's always a peanut gallery urging a glorious battle
of fighting to the last drop of someone else's blood. It's
always different when it's you. Further, I'm usually on the defensive.
Since my critics typically have much greater press-reach than I do,
people hear their attacks on me, the negative. While achievements
which should build my reputation, the positive, are often buried.
But I think there are very subtle reasons, such as a problem
similar to the linguistic effect where some people hear the phrase
"sickle-cell anemia" as "sick-as-hell anemia". The words "sickle" and
"cell" aren't in their experience, but "sick and "hell" are part of
their everyday vocabulary. So applied to me, more metaphorically,
"facing large fine or jail" tends to be taken as "making large whine
or wail" ("Pear
Pimples For Hairy Fishnuts"!).
Perhaps the best example of this effect comes from the type of
argument where someone flames me along the lines of: "You'd
rather complain about being sued than publish the research!". And I
have to bite my tongue to keep from giving a sarcastic reply of "You
got it! Wow, you smart clever person. Given a choice between risking
years of ruinous litigation, and saying I'm not doing something
because of fear of years of litigation, I'd MUCH rather say I'm not
doing it because of that lawsuit risk. You nailed it. And your point
is?" (and such a reply would of course just be more proof of my
Because I can see how the mental gears are grinding there. In
everyone's day-to-day experience, the time spent complaining about a
chore, is typically comparable to the time needed to do the
chore. Hence, the person complaining is "wrong", and the "right" thing
to do, in many critic's minds, is to chastise them for complaining
rather than doing. With the evident aim of prodding them to do the chore.
Now, generally people have absolutely no concept of research which can
get one sued. It's completely outside their experience. So they
rewrite it into a familiar situation that does match their
understanding, which turns out to be along the lines of complaining
about not doing something trivial. And then they react with the
indicated response to handle that, which is often to make a personal
attack. Moreover, any reply which is not immediate agreement, is
then a further basis for intensifying the personal attack, for
whining. And I certainly lack the superb diplomatic skills which
would be necessary to defuse it all, even if such an outcome is
So the reactions are completely comprehensible once these cognitive
principles are understood. Abstractly, this isn't malice, merely a
thinking error. But that's little comfort when subjected to it. And no
solution at all.
Note the result of this process, is not to convince me to go get
sued. After all, if I had the ability to withstand years of litigation
I certainly should be able to take some flames. But rather, it
convinces me I'm not in a position to counter even that amount of
personal attacks, and so I shouldn't even consider raising the
stakes - i.e., it means I should quit.
# Speaking of Google - you have spent quite some time investigating
Google's algorithms. Why are they important?
Google is one choke-point for control of information. It
has tremendous influence over what gets seen - and what does not.
While it doesn't have absolute power, it's extremely powerful.
In a way, Google is like a major newspaper or television
network, functioning as journalism. It has a process for sorting and
sifting information, to determine what is presented to the
reader. Again, it may not have a complete monopoly, but its widespread
market share makes its choice very influential, with an effect on
a mass audience.
And Google doesn't sue programmers for reverse-engineering.
They don't even issue press releases calling them nasty names. That's
such a relief. Truly, they are not evil.
# There is quite some focus on Google. I find this quite amusing,
because I remember that Webcrawler, then Yahoo, then Altavista got
the same attention. Do you think Google's dominance will last?
On the Vanity of Earthly Greatness
The tusks which clashed in mighty brawls
Of mastodons, are billiard balls.
The sword of Charlemagne the Just
Is Ferric Oxide, known as rust.
The grizzly bear, whose potent hug,
Was feared by all, is now a rug.
Great Caesar's bust is on the shelf,
And I don't feel so well myself.
Arthur Guiterman (1936)
Nothing lasts forever. I prefer to think in terms of general,
timeless problems, that work out in specific ways with particular
examples. The fact that one instance may be part of historical
pattern, doesn't make it somehow meaningless. There's a long list of
people who have tried to rule the world, and failed. But the next one
who tries, is then no less dangerous and potentially destructive in
making the attempt.
After all, in the long run, we are all dead.
# Apart from your censorship work, you have spent quite an amount of
non-paid hours fighting the DMCA. Why are copyright issues important
Operationally, copyright is a restriction on speech in order
to facilitate a business model. One can agree or disagree on the wisdom
of this, on various legal or policy grounds. But functionally, that's
what it is. However, historically, that restriction was almost
exclusively confined to commercial production, and was in practice a
business regulation. Now, with the falling cost of communication
(ie. easy copying), its reach has become extremely pervasive. Not
only has it extended horizontally, to affect so much of networked
communication, it's also extended vertically, with "paracopyright"
aspects. We're at the point of having serious debates about whether
there's restrictions on technical speech about the flaws of the
technical means used to enforce copyright.
Look at what we have now a result of copyright laws:
Practically mandatory registration of ISP's, instant take-down of
material without any court hearing, lawsuits which show why the Eighth
Amendment has a clause against imposing excessive fines, and more. All
of this would be considered intolerable if done for traditional
government and political reasons. But for business and copyright
reasons, it's been implemented.
Remember, the DMCA has no general fair use defense to its
prohibitions. In fact, one of its most chilling effects was overriding
the "substantial non-infringing use" type defenses of technical tools.
And personally, the DMCA was the killer legal risk in terms of
a basis to sue me for censorware decryption. Pre-DMCA copyright, and
other laws, had fair use type arguments which could be made in
defense. But the DMCA had no such defense (as passed, it even has a
special provision in favor of censorware companies). This lack of
a statutory defense was a major aspect in my
winning an exemption during the
DMCA circumvention rulemaking.
# How should the DMCA be redrafted?
The problem, which few people want to address straight-on, is
that the moment you allow tools for fair use, you allow tools for
widespread peer-to-peer copyright infringement. This is in direct
conflict with the current copyright enforcement strategy of having
functionally weak technological controls made effective by strong legal
I favor the fair-use side of that dilemma. But no member of
Congress has ever asked my opinion.
# Do you think it will happen in practice?
I think that fair-use/control dilemma can be pushed to the
breaking point, and eventually will be. Which way it will break,
however, I don't know.
Reimerdes (DeCSS) ruling put it:
"With commendable candor, [Professor Touretzky] readily admitted that
the implication of his view that the spoken language and computer code
versions were substantially similar was not necessarily that the
preliminary injunction was too broad; rather, the logic of his
position was that it was either too broad or too narrow. ... Once
again, the question of a substantially broader injunction need not be
addressed here, as plaintiffs have not sought broader relief."
One day, that
question will have to be addressed.
# When you called John Gilmore's inflight activism a 'millionaire's
version of trolling' you ended
up being trashed as a troll yourself on the front page of Professor
Lessig's blog. This bothered you a lot. Professor
Lessig is himself a proponent of blogs being a new means of
democracy. Why is he wrong and what should Greplaw readers learn
from your Gilmore experience?
To start, it's important to put my reaction in
context. Otherwise, per your question about taking heat earlier, I do
come off like someone who can dish it out but not take it. That
happened at a time where I was making the decision that I had to
censorware decryption research. I just didn't have the necessary
support. I was, and remain, extremely underpowered and overmatched for
what I was trying to do. And it had reached a point again where
practically, I just couldn't continue. I had virtually no ability to
fight back against a smear, to even tell my side of a story to a
comparable audience. It connected with my very bad memories of being
driven to stop censorware research earlier, when the DMCA became law.
I also felt somewhat blindsided.
Let me reply to the general issue of "blog bubble-blowing",
without particularizing it to Lessig or Dave Winer or anyone else. We
can't all have a million readers. Or even ten thousand readers. That's
just a mathematical fact. Often, the word "democracy" is
bait-and-switched between two meanings, of having equal power ("One man,
one vote"), versus an abstractly equal chance of achieving vastly
unequal power ("Anyone can be President"). But there's really very few
places in the world today (at least the industrial Western world)
which are hereditary monarchies.
If the argument shifts from sheer readership numbers, to
supposedly having a few influential readers, the same mathematical
constraint still applies. There's only a handful of attention slots
available. It's far fewer than the number of writers vying for them.
Through a combination of position, skill, and fortuitous
circumstances, a very few people will hit the audience jackpot. But
the vast, vast, majority of the population can scratch forever and
never get anywhere. Winning big at gambling is not a new means of
economic justice (the lottery says all you need is a dollar and a
dream, err, a blog and an RSS feed).
There's nothing wrong with keeping an online diary which is
read by friends and family. Just like there's nothing wrong with
playing frequent poker games. You don't have to be a professional, or
make a living at it, to enjoy it and find it worthwhile. But having a
few people who become big successes at the overall game, doesn't mean
it's a seismic power shift in society. Punditry is not democracy.
Are people going to stop reading sites which have a huge
audience? If not, the writers favored by those sites will still wield
enormous influence. Or is the argument that everyone will suddenly
become vastly more skeptical and unwilling to take assertions at face
value, more than has ever been demonstrated in human history? Look at
what happens on a big discussion site, when an article is inaccurately
summarized. How many people do the tiny amount of work needed to check
it out for themselves, as opposed to taking the path of least
resistance via relying based on the inaccurate summary? We're talking
about a single click, right in front of them, and they don't do
it. The numbers are that 90%-95% of people won't even do that one
click. Yet somehow, in Blogotopia, everyone is assumed to suddenly
become a hard-headed show-me just-the-facts reader detective.
At this point, the argument tends to shift to some sort of
assertion regarding a theoretical ability to be read. That's about as
fatuous as saying that being libelled in mass media doesn't matter,
because anyone who would make an important decision based on the libel,
could, in theory, ask the libelled person for their side of the
story. We know the world doesn't work this way in practice. We're
allowed to understand that being falsely attacked on the front page of
a newspaper, isn't countered by a correction in the back pages, even
though theoretically every reader (or interested reader) could have
read that correction. But when it comes to The Internet,
somehow we're expected to believe that people will now actively
seek out the correction, to the extent of tracking down another
site with a rebuttal, or being far more critical than is human nature.
The evangelism can get downright cruel, along the lines of the
phrase "Let them eat cake!". Again, I'm not talking here about anybody
in particular, but often there's an influence-rich person saying that
in America, err, I mean Cyberspace, anyone can get rich. This speech is
done either naively and hopefully, or snidely and dismissively,
depending on the context. But it's just as problematic in either case
(see the two meanings of "democracy" above). Then since the idea is
that everyone can be rich, often it follows that if you're poor, it
must be your own fault. Politely or not, the next stage is to wonder
if the poor are just shiftless and lazy, and whether if they'd just
work harder, they'd be rich too. The process recapitulates everything
from other wealth imbalances.
# Which are the most important anticensorship projects in the loop today?
The Google cache. I mean that very seriously. What caused the
most outcry when censored by China? By Iran? None other than Google.
That should tell you something. It's considered a serious threat.
In my view, an important anticensorship effort needs to have
two qualities: a) It must be usable by ordinary people and b) They have
to want to use it. Most proposed ideas fail one of these two criteria.
Nobody besides very technical people can use it, or would even want to.
In contrast, the Google cache is literally one click, and provides a
very useful service.
Moreover, such utility means governments have a harder time
suppressing the service, because then there's a backlash from
respectable people within their own societies. It creates pressure
towards a more open society, because the general service is not seen
as a criminal tool.
The Internet Archive is similar.
It has a whole range of applications, and it's hard to segregate the
approved and disfavored uses.
Moving down a little on popular appeal, the various
anonymity/privacy services are nice. These tend to be more niche
applications, and to struggle to survive. But it's an actual
implementation of a concept, with many real users, so it's real.
BitTorrent is interesting in terms of peer-to-peer
programs. It's an application where I've actually seen it being used
for real reasons (e.g. large distributions) other than the
nudge-nudge-wink-wink copyright infringement type of file-sharing.
And there's intriguing things being done with community
wireless. Something might come out of that.
# What can Greplawers do to support them?
Generally, I'm very dubious about people who want to go off
and code The Uncensorable Protocol, This Time For Sure. Almost all the
work in making something useful is not sexy architecture dreaming, but
uncool drudgery. It's user interface work, documentation, usability
testing, and so on. In one hyped effort I followed, "the mountain
labored and brought forth a mouse". When I downloaded it and read the
instructions, I could barely even get through them. I
couldn't imagine them being comprehended by a nontechnical political
dissent who might not even read English well.
But it's extremely difficult to get people to do large amounts
of boring volunteer work. One tension with how Censorware Project
evolved, was the age-old problem of a mismatch between doing the
grunt-work versus getting credit. And again, if there's any success,
that brings with it the temptation for power-grabs.
I suppose I don't have a simple, facile, answer. Send lawyers,
(PR) guns, and money?
# Finally, who is the dumbest
I haven't thought to rank them. There are so many deserving candidates
from which to choose.
Seth Finkelstein was interviewed by Mikael Pawlo.