|MAJOR ESSAYS||MINOR NET ESSAYS|
|CENSORWARE ESSAYS||MISC ESSAYS|
Michael Sims "The Censorware Project is now closed" - Jonathan Wallace account - Bennett Haselton account
The Michael Sims discussed here is the Slashdot journalist
Note people are understandably skeptical of the events described below. The key piece of evidence, independent of anyone's account, is that Michael Sims destroyed and hijacked the censorware.org website. That should be definitive as to truth. There is no excuse for a formerly-trusted webmaster to hold a group's site hostage, and to bounce the group's mail.
This is not a morally equivalent flame-war . I've been driven to quit censorware decryption research, in part because Slashdot's de facto support of Michael Sims, meant the legal risk was unbearable.]
"Reporters come in as newspaper men, trained to get the news and eager to get it; they end as tinhorn statesmen, full of dark secrets and unable to write the truth if they tried."
-- H.L. Mencken
Disclaimer: The author is a biased, partial, partisan, interested party to the events chronicled below.
The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. "Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?" he asked.Unfortunately, I can't begin at the beginning, only very near the end. The story of the formation, tensions, and then public meltdown, of Censorware Project would fill a book (plus an updated edition concerning the aftermath and issues about partial re-grouping). This article is a cautionary tale about what happened to the censorware.org website, and some associated personal memoirs.
"Begin at the beginning", the King said gravely, "and go on till you come to the end: then stop."
-- Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Censorware is software designed and optimized for use by an authority to prevent another person from sending or receiving information. It's more than an essay in itself to discuss the politics of censorware, the various government mandates and laws involving it, and the free-speech opposition to it. For background on these topics, see websites as such as Peacefire or The Net Censorship Dilemma (or Seth Finkelstein's Anticensorware Investigations)
The Censorware Project was formed by a group of writers, lawyers, and activists in late 1997. The coFounders were Seth Finkelstein (the writer of this essay), Bennett Haselton, Jamie McCarthy, Michael Sims, James Tyre, and Jonathan Wallace. The goal was to expose information about censorware products. I donated my skills as a senior-level programmer . Michael Sims became the webmaster .
We produced a great amount of important free-speech material. But analyzing censorware is hard, unrewarding, legally risky work. Programmers have been sued for reverse-engineering the secret blacklists. To compress a year's worth of story down to a few sentences, there came a time I received legal advice that I was heading for a lawsuit . I was the person with my fingers on the server. There was a deep conflict between what Censorware Project could do which would be good for me, as a programmer at risk of being sued, and what would be good for e.g. Michael Sims, in terms of promoting his nascent career as a journalist. The fact that I'm writing this essay should tell you what was the outcome of that conflict.
"Buy This Magazine or We'll Shoot This Dog!"On Wednesday, August 30 2000, the webmaster for Censorware Project, Michael Sims removed the contents of censorware.org for the first time. All reports, essays, and other information were taken down from the website. The front page was replaced with a message about "Closed for remodeling". That was false. There was no remodeling planned. Michael Sims had taken down the website as a means of retaliation (concurrence: Jonathan Wallace's account : "... Mike Sims' reaction to a perceived slight was to take the site down for a week, ...").
-- famous National Lampoon cover (January 1973)
The perceived slight (and retaliation) was against James Tyre, a Censorware Project member who had written to Michael Sims the following message, protesting one of his (Sims) unilateral actions as Censorware Project webmaster:
Date: Fri, 04 Aug 2000 00:41:08 -0700Given the prospect of having this message becoming known, Michael Sims' reaction was not to reconsider, but to shut down the censorware.org website. That sounds unbelievable. But it's true.
To: cwp <email@example.com>
From: "James S. Tyre" <jstyre[at-sign]jstyre.com>
Subject: The CWP Unperson
"[Finkelstein], however, was already an unperson He did not exist: he had never existed." -- 1984
Michael, the "why" does not matter, but I just happened to look at http://censorware.org/admin/, and was surprised and saddened to see that you have removed any reference to Seth. I hardly ever check that page, so I do not know how long ago this was, but I just saw it.
You and he have become enemies, and there is nothing which I can do about that, apparently. But you can not deny the contributions he made, that CWP likely never would have existed but for him.
He had been listed as a former member, though I do not recall the exact language. Unpersoning him is just wrong.
-------------------------------------------------------------------- James S. Tyre mailto:jstyre[at-sign]jstyre.com [old address deleted]
When you have shot and killed a man you have in some measure clarified your attitude toward him. You have given a definite answer to a definite problem. For better or worse you have acted decisively. In a way, the next move is up to him.The first take-down of censorware.org by Michael Sims was a source of much consternation. Nobody else had thought to mirror the site, because he was taking care of it. There was serious concern that he might permanently destroy all the material.
-- R. A. Lafferty
Ironically, it turned out that the person who had the most complete copy of the content was me. On August 21, I had made a copy of all the text on the website, simply as a precaution to check against further shenanigans (I still regret not making a full mirror, but at the time it didn't seem necessary).
While Michael Sims made no explicit demands, and ignored almost every attempt to contact him, it's my own view that the message was utterly clear. If we ever wanted to see the Censorware Project website alive again, then: Beg! Agree, in Jonathan Wallace's later phrasing , "the group was exclusively his". Don't argue. Otherwise, the retaliation will be anything from having one's name stricken, to the whole website being destroyed.
Days went by. People started to notice that links to the material on the Censorware Project website were broken, and asking what had happened. One of the main censorware-advocates was curious. Michael Sims continued to ignore everything. It seemed like everyone involved was being drawn into a circus of "Day x, of the Censorware Project website held hostage". And personally, I was deeply worried about the prospect of ending up as a bargaining chip in a bizarre negotiation with the terrorist.
I thought the longer this went on, the worse it would become. Pressure would build, and I feared the politics involved. And bluntly, I was extremely tired of being jerked-around by Michael Sims. I didn't want to play his game.
On Tuesday-Wednesday night September 5-6 2000, I had a many hours-long discussion with James Tyre (see above). I intended to put up a partial mirror of the censorware.org material on my own personal website (http://sethf.com) He did not bless it, but did not forbid it either. That was good enough for me.
Then I got to stay up the rest of that night actually constructing the partial mirror. I wanted to get it done and up as quickly as possible. I essentially had only the plain-text dump from August 21 2000, not many images or html files. So it was a fairly complicated programming task to organize those files into something usable.
Wednesday morning September 6 2000, I put up my text-mirror of censorware.org. I told a few people about it, but didn't send out any major announcements (or make any extensive comments in the mirror itself). Personal note: I'm a professional programmer in my mid-30's, not a college student. I do not enjoy stress-filled all-nighters. I had my reasons for pulling that one, but it was an unpleasant experience, and I felt every hour of it.
Thursday afternoon September 7 2000, I send out a message to a few people about possibly retrieving Censorware Project website HTML pages from browser caches (as well as, ahem additional personal comments on the situation).
Mirable Dictu ("it is marvelous to relate"), on Thursday evening September 7 2000, I noticed activity on the censorware.org website, and it seemed the content was being put back online. I send mail about this. And get to spend another late night downloading the files off the website in case I don't get another chance, and comparing that mirror-copy with copies made by others. My mirror was no longer necessary, so I eventually took it down.
Michael Sims never gave an explanation as to what motivated him to restore the website in that case, and I doubt he would admit the following. But I believe that my putting up a partial mirror was the reason. That changed the dynamics of the situation. It was then no longer his game, of beg and plead with him to release the hostages, err, hosted-pages. The incentives were reversed. Suddenly, time was working against him, not for him. The more he delayed, the more my mirror would become the website people used. He was losing control of the situation. His best strategy then became to backpedal and attempt to salvage whatever influence he could.
I cannot prove this explanation. But it fits the timing and behavior.
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.After the immediate crisis eased, there followed weeks of gut-eating tension, as repeated efforts were made to get Michael Sims to yield control of the website (Jonathan Wallace's account : "I wrote him several emails requesting that he turn the domain over to Jamie [McCarthy] or Bennett [Haselton], as I felt we could no longer trust him to administer it. We also found out during that time that important email from people trying to contact us, including members of the press, was not being answered by Sims, nor being forwarded to other members").
-- Shakespeare, Henry the Fifth Act III Scene i Line 1
Ironically, it seemed all my hard work with mirroring the website had only served to get Michael Sims a reprieve. My unpersoning from credit on the website was still in effect. It looked like it was in fact quite easy to deny the contributions I had made. Just do it.
The very politics I feared eventually did come to pass. On October 18 2000, it was communicated to me that despite how much those malicious action had hurt me personally, and no matter the crisis of the past month, the necessity of avoiding making public any internal disputes meant that Michael Sims would get away with all that he had done (at least for the time being).
But during October 2000, Michael Sims seemed to have been building up a resentment of the above e-mail messages from Jonathan Wallace. This appears to have culminated in the second shut-down of censorware.org .
On Saturday November 4 2000, Michael Sims removed the contents from censorware.org again. The front page was changed to read in part
(Jonathan Wallace's account : "Judging from some email I received from him today, this [message] means me.")
I'm sorry, this site is no more. Due to demands from some of the people who contributed, in however minor a fashion, to this site, it has been taken down. At some point it may return in a much altered form. Or it may not. It probably won't be soon, so don't hold your breath.
If you are interested in volunteering to fight censorware, please contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org. Desirable skills include a commitment to free speech, a mature attitude and outlook, and either activism experience or computer skills.
-- Michael Sims, 2000-11-04
Many people have the mistaken idea that the censorware.org website first went down on November 4 2000, because of the above public declaration on the website. But in fact, that was the second time around, which was the culmination of all the results of the first time (August 30 - September 7 2000).
On the page currently at www.censorware.org Sims makes the following request: "If you are interested in volunteering to fight censorware, please contact me." One of the reasons I made this post was so that anyone considering working with Mike can make an informed decision.When I tell the story of censorware.org, sometimes people try to be comforting, with aphorisms such as "The arguments are so vicious because the stakes are so small". But in fact, the stakes weren't small at all, to the people involved. For myself, I certainly didn't think the risk of an expensive lawsuit was a small matter. And, in fairness, Michael Sims' desire to launch a career as a journalist was hardly a small stake to him.
-- Jonathan Wallace's account , conclusion
At some deep level, I think the story is about the corruptions and temptations of the power of journalism. While I don't believe that Michael Sims started out with Censorware Project intending to use then discard it, at some point he seemed to come to view it as his stepping-stone. And once he had stepped to the next level, he was then willing to step-on it. I find it significant that on Monday October 2 2000, Michael Sims became a full-time journalist on a popular website ("Slashdot") That's right in the middle of the first and second take-downs of the Censorware Project website.
As a pragmatic matter, that full-time journalism position meant he could afford to trash censorware.org permanently. Of course, a few people would be very angry with him. But that number would be trivial compared to those who would get a favorable view of him from his articles. A journalist gets reputation-credit for every instance of reporting "Government evil action" or "Bureaucrat says something stupid" (and if there isn't a real story, some notorious examples have demonstrated that it's hardly a credibility problem to just fabricate one ).
Sure, there's an irony here which reaches the heights of Henry Kissinger and the Nobel Peace Prize. But that's average for journalism. There's practically no downside for using people or organizations. It's the nature of the beast.
Michael Sims apparently decided to pour salt on the earth behind him, without regard to what damage he did to the civil-liberties in the process. Not even the passage of a Federal law concerning mandating censorware (December 21 2000) would change his behavior. Maybe this was his rite-of-passage as a journalist.
A bad beginning makes a bad ending.While I've tried to support my history with as much corroborating evidence as can reasonably be found, some readers will understandably be skeptical. It's irrefutable that the domain censorware.org is controlled by Michael Sims . And the fact that the website has been shut-down since November 2000 should be easy to verify. I would hope that would suffice.
-- Euripides, Aeolus, fragment32
On a personal note, I hope this essay will serve to explain the basis of some of my feelings, in future battles concerning censoring the Net. Never again do I want to go through an attempted coup d'etat, as happened with Censorware Project.
Updates: A few days after this essay was published (February 1 2001), the Censorware Project, of which Michael Sims no longer is a member, came back onto the Net. The new URL is http://censorware.net
On February 27 2001, Michael Sims added the following paragraph to the front page of censorware.org :
Since this site went offline, the other members of the Project (Seth Finkelstein, Jamie McCarthy, Jonathan Wallace, Bennett Haselton, and James Tyre) have taken up a harassment campaign against me. They have attempted to get me fired from my (totally unrelated to this site) job, attempted to have me sued for libel, and generally behaved in a manner one can only describe as despicable.
(James Tyre joked that I had finally been un-unperson-ed)
For the record, none of the charges above are true (though I did write a letter of protest to Slashdot about Michael Sims abusing his position to trash messages discussing what he did). Michael Sims may have confused the actions of an unrelated person, Laurence Godfrey . That libel/defamation incident had nothing to do with Censorware Project or any associated people (in fact, I spent a lot of time writing both publicly and privately that he should not be sued ).
[note public concurrence by Jamie McCarthy : "Michael Sims' statements on censorware.org regarding myself and my colleagues at the Censorware Project are not true."]
As of March 5 2001, the censorware.org domain registration was renewed for two years by Michael Sims.
On July 19 2001, on a private mailing-list devoted to
free expression event planning,
wrote in part to Michael Sims
"... please explain to the group why, despite my emails to you requesting that you assign it, you continue to hang on to the censorware.org domain ...".
There was no reply.
I've occasionally received comments from people who say these events are "old news" or "ancient history", and presumably it's some sort of trollish bad manners to mention them (especially to Michael Sims). But it matters right now, right this very moment. There are still numerous links and material which point to the censorware.org domain . When people trying to fight censorware laws follow those old links, they either get a page-not-found error, or Michael Sims' take-down statement beginning "I'm sorry, this site is no more". This is not an immutable law of nature. It is a deliberate, malicious, ongoing act of destruction by Michael Sims. This could be changed in a minute, via him ceasing to play dog-in-the-manger with the domain name. Only he knows how many people were misdirected or could not find some resources to oppose censorware, due to this spite.
Note: I've also found some readers are having trouble with one of the major themes of this essay. While this is unarguably my personal account, there are general implications to be drawn. As I write above, it's about the power of journalism. At some level, I'm in awe of how a person can try to pull a coup d'etat, do a salting of the earth behind them after it fails, indefinitely publicly mislead efforts to oppose censorship laws - and yet afford to do this all with comparatively very little loss of reputation simply by being a journalist . Playing off the phrase "diplomatic immunity", I call this "journalistic invulnerability". It's impressive.
From around November 2001 to mid-March 2002 the censorware.org domain returned only "UNDER CONSTRUCTION" or an empty directory.
March 18 2002: Content has returned to the censorware.org domain . It now reads:
Well, since Seth is kicking up his harassment program again, I think it's time to write up a brief history of the Project and Seth.At this time, it's important to take a moment and revisit the issues. On March 25 2002, there will be a Federal trial about a Federal government law connecting library and school Internet funding to mandated installation of censorware. There are still many old links to the censorware.org domain , and people who follow those old links don't get the anti-censorware material they need. This happens not because of an act of God, but because Michael Sims first held hostage, then deliberately destroyed, the censorware.org website. Again, per Jonathan Wallace's account , Censorware Project lawyers requested he relinquish the domain. Michael Sims has repeatedly refused.
Hopefully within a few days.
-- Michael Sims, 2002-03-18
See also the front page of the new home of Censorware Project (of which Michael Sims no longer is a member), http://censorware.NET in terms of the version archived from February 2001 :
We are grateful to a former member, Seth Finkelstein, email@example.com, for his crucial contributions to our earlier reports and to the Censorware Project "knowledge-base" of wrongly blacklisted sites.
Why were we down? Another former member, Michael Sims, firstname.lastname@example.org, angry at a perceived slight from one of us, shut down www.censorware.org. Since the domain had been registered in Sims' name, there was nothing we could do except obtain a new domain, and put the site back up. Previous to flipping out on us, Sims had made a major contribution to the group, notably acting as webmaster and site designer, and obtaining logs and records pertaining to the use of the Smartfilter software from Utah via the Freedom of Information Act. Mike, now that the site is back up, we are renewing our request that you transfer us the censorware.org domain. You're not using it for anything, and it will continue to confuse people and divert traffic away from this, the rightful Censorware Project site.
[n.b,. that "perceived slight from one of us" remark refers to James Tyre's mail message The CWP Unperson]
For a year, I've refrained from putting the following self-promotion in this essay. The facts here should stand on their own merits. But given Michael Sims' current statement above, I don't think I can be blamed:
ELECTRONIC FRONTIER FOUNDATION (EFF) PIONEER AWARDS HONOR INTERNET LUMINARIESMarch 23 2002: Well, Michael Sims has made good on his threat. He's now converted the censorware.org domain into a site purely dedicated to attacking me and others. Much name-calling. He's shamelessly hijacked people looking for anti-censorware information right before a trial challenging a Federal law . If anything shows what I say is accurate, his actions here in admittedly turning the domain into his personal flaming platform ironically prove the truth of my point (i.e. that he viewed the website as his fiefdom, to use or abuse for his benefit, despite whatever harm he might do to civil-liberties).
Ennis, Finkelstein, and Perrin Presented Awards at EFF's Tenth Annual Pioneer Awards Ceremony
Seth Finkelstein - Anti-censorship activist and programmer Seth Finkelstein spent hundreds of unpaid and uncredited hours over several years to decrypt and expose to public scrutiny the secret contents of the most popular censorware blacklists. Seth has been active in raising the level of public awareness about the dangers that Internet content blocking software and rating/labeling schemes pose to freedom of communication. His work has armed many with information of great assistance in the fight against government mandated use of these systems.
However, he's done far worse than mud-slinging. In order to get back at Censorware Project attorney James Tyre and myself, Michael Sims stooped so low as to put on the web an internal, confidential, legally-sensitive message by James Tyre, detailing all the particular censorware decryption work I've done (at http://censorware.org/censorware.org_tyre_revelation.txt) . All actions, dates, and programs involved. Now, privately, it's a great message for praising me and my work. But what Michael Sims has achieved, in effect, is to tell every censorware company which might want to sue me for that work, exactly what I've done, according to the words of a Censorware Project lawyer. Doing this without any legal consultation, was an incredibility vicious and vile action by Michael Sims. These aren't just flame-war issues
This is not exactly the way I envisioned all my efforts being revealed. But since Michael Sims has now told the censorware companies everything they might want to know about suing me, I've now released the various Pioneer Award praise for all my work.
What he did was not a trivial thing, and goes to exactly the issue to which I alluded in the main essay. He's broken confidence with a sensitive document bearing on my legal risk of being sued. He's done this for his revenge at being crossed. And there is absolutely no cost to him for doing this, since he is a journalist . That's "journalistic invulnerability".
Forgive me if I take a while to get a full response in place. While Michael Sims has no consequences to his betrayals of the trust placed in him. I have to worry about the various legal implications of his actions here.
April 5 2002: Michael Sims' actions managed to derail all the anticensorware work I had underway to coincide with the trial challenging a Federal censorware law . Remember, these are real effects, it's not just a flame-war. But now that the trial is over, I might as well return to this issue. I think there's a good case study regarding an article proposal I wrote to Slashdot, which Michael Sims now claims is proof of his charges.
Here's my logic:
It is very frustrating that it seems the power of journalism lets Michael Sims sweep away all the legal issues by just calling a name, by saying Stalker! or Harasser!. Me, I'm deeply worried about getting sued for my anticensorware work. In contrast he's charging me with doing wrong for writing in an article proposal, that I'm concerned that he might contribute to my being sued for anticensorware work.
You decide, from the proposal , but keep in mind the legal risk I am facing for this volunteer free-speech activism.
April 6 2002: In the bon mots of Michael Sims,
"It's a lie! It's a BIIIIIGGGG LIIIEEE!".
It's dangerous for me to get into a line-by-line rebuttal. When Michael Sims makes the issue about my sanity (or lack thereof ...), that's a diversion from what he's done with censorware.org. Frankly, it should be utterly laughable for him to call anyone names. He's destroyed the former website of Censorware Project, played dog-in-the-manger with the censorware.org domain name, and now is admittedly misdirecting people who are looking for material to fight censorware (from old links), hijacking them to his flames instead. These are actions. And again, he could stop at any time, return the censorware.org domain registration to Censorware Project, but refuses to do so. Talk about stalking/harassing/mentally-ill, he's turned the whole former Censorware Project website (and generated aliases - stalkedbyseth.com! / "Stalked by Seth") into his spite-site devoted to purely personal attacks on me and James Tyre and others!
But the worth of a lie is that people invoke truth-is-in-the-middle rules, so any mud which sticks is to his benefit. That's the power of journalism, to suffer no penalty for fabrication. Herewith, a few denials of accusations against me made by Michael Sims (I'm only hitting some high points):
I have never telephoned him. Not once. I've never spammed Slashdot (The "troll" population of Slashdot is legendary, and they don't need any help from me to taunt him!). I haven't written "hundreds of letters" demanding he be fired - now, a long time ago, I wrote one protest letter about his trashing of messages, I had a few-message email discussion once after a managing editor's interview, and just before a trial challenging a Federal censorware law I made an article proposal where his actions figured prominently into my legal risk thoughts. When Laurence Godfrey threatened to sue Michael Sims for libel/defamation, I didn't encourage it, in fact the complete opposite - I attempted to convince Godfrey NOT to sue . That Michael Sims claims the EFF would give me a Pioneer Award due to a "long-standing harassment campaign", is ludicrous. See the excellent nominations , and I co-authored a paper with an EFF Senior Staff Attorney .
Mike Godwin, well, he really needs a section all his own, detailing his honesty , respect , and renowned pleasantness , including his sterling character reference of Michael Sims (which is reciprocated ). It might be overkill to mention his gentle humor , congeniality , and good sportsmanship .
For Declan McCullagh, very briefly, see the comments in revelations of my decryption work , and consider that Peacefire send out two press releases charging Declan McCullagh with plagiarizing Peacefire's anticensorware work. I didn't write any of those messages.
To again quote bon mots
There are other incidents here and there. But this is getting rather long, and I assume the point has been made by now.
The truth is, if Michael Sims had anything, anything, legally serious on me (as opposed to all the name-calling) he'd be making maximum use of it.
I have never regretted so much that fateful time at the start, where I had approval over whether he could join the Censorware Project (oh, hindsight!). Michael Sims can't even be truthful about this.
Now that I've gotten-into-it of necessity, let me step back. Again, if Michael Sims can switch the topic to the discrediting of me, ad-hominem, he's won by changing the subject. At the risk of being tedious, let's review once more:
April 8 2002: From the-lurkers-support-me-in-email dept.
I don't think there's much point in posting generic he's-a-nut messages (besides, who can tell if they're fabrications or not?). But the following comment struck me as having much worth pondering in it:
(used with permission, but the sender didn't want to be attributed)
Imagine if you were the president of the NRA and in the early days of the Net had personally set up nra.org, and then fell out with them and replaced the homepage with a rant. It's just insane. It's saying "my personal shit, with someone I claim to have no need, respect or care for, is way more important to me than my mission of seeing that this important issue and goal are taken seriously and succeed."
Really pisses me off. It makes ALL of us look bad, and marginalizes cyberliberty work even further.
Just sent him a (polite, pleading) note to this effect.
Obviously, the polite, pleading, note had no effect.
April 25 2002: From NONlurkers-support-me-in-email dept.
Bennett Haselton (Peacefire ) wrote an excellent message about the wrongness of using truth-is-in-the-middle rules here and the harm done by Michael Sims' hijacking. With his permission, I've made the full message available . Some choice quotes:
If the EFF webmaster put the eff.org domain in his own name and then hi-jacked it from the organization, he'd be branded a traitor and a pariah in the Internet community for the rest of his life, and nobody would ever forget what he did. ...
... nothing [Michael] does [at Slashdot] will ever come close to canceling out the harm he did by shutting down the one-time Censorware Project website.
The only legitimacy that Michael has is through his position as a Slashdot writer; he has just enough writing skills to make his writings sound seductively intelligent to anybody who doesn't know the real story. ... Do you think they're going to let him put the Slashdot.org domain in his name? :)
February 10 2003: See Jonathan Wallace's latest account:
Michael Sims, Domain Hijacking and Moral Equivalency
In short, this is a colossal and continuing act of malice by our former webmaster, Michael Sims ... We had some internal discussions about suing him to get the domain back. ...
Late update June 9 2004: I've quit censorware decryption research. Slashdot's de facto support of Michael Sims meant the legal risk was unbearable.
Supplement: In May 2005, the hijacked domain was reclaimed at last. Too little, too late.
|MAJOR ESSAYS||MINOR NET ESSAYS|
|CENSORWARE ESSAYS||MISC ESSAYS|