Thoughts On Winning An EFF Pioneer Award

by Seth Finkelstein     March 30, 2001

(originally published in Ethical Spectacle, April 2001 )

In March 2001, the Electronic Frontier Foundation honored me as one of winners of EFF's Tenth Annual Pioneer Awards . As the press release described it:

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.
The following material is adapted from my speech at the awards ceremony (passing over the preliminary introductions, acknowledgements, thank-yous to various people, and a silly joke about penguins).

Can the Net be censored? There's a famous phrase

The Net interprets censorship as damage, and routes around it.
-- John Gilmore
And when I've heard it, I've thought in reply,
But what if censorship is in the router?
-- Seth Finkelstein
Consider thousands and thousands of little censors in routers, all over the place. That's what we have today.

Let me explain the some of the reasons for my work, for why I valued the freedom of the Internet. I go back a long way in net time. I entered MIT in 1981 (graduated 1985). Being at MIT, I was able to use the early precursors of the Internet, back in the days when it was almost all a network of scientists and programmers.

I loved this system where someone could communicate so easily with people across the country, even in other countries. Sometimes it barely made a difference if someone was across the street or across the world.

For many years, the prevailing view was that this tremendous free flow of information could not be stopped. Governments would fall, nation-states would be made obsolete. But I did not believe this was an inevitability of a history. Censorship is often far more complex than direct government laws.

I knew the history of McCarthy blacklists. Contrary to popular myth, McCarthyism was an extensive system, involving both public and private realms, with government and business in cooperation. I had read extensively about the Comics Code, where major publishers had reacted to the prospect of government action with a system of widespread industry self-suppression. I was aware of the background of the MPAA movie ratings system.

It seemed to me that a similar system could very well stifle free speech on the Internet. In the mid-1990's, a strange sort of doublethink seemed to grip civil-libertarians in discussion about censorship and the Internet. On one hand, per above, there was the mantra of governments-can't-censor-the-Net. Yet at the same time, there was the idea that for parents, such control was cheap and easy, a censorware program costing a few tens of dollars would be sufficient. Almost nobody saw a logical problem here.

I was not surprised when much censorware was exposed to be blacklisting everything from feminist newsgroups to sex-education to gay liberation to free-speech sites. Many people were surprised, but I was not. I expected it. Such groups are traditional targets for banning. Imagine, if you take a collection of censor-minded people, give them free reign to blacklist anything and everything they desire, let them do it in secret, and with absolutely no accountability - what in the world do you think you will get? It's obvious, or should be.

In the United States, the issues about censorware are most frequently framed in terms of "parents - children - SEX". And when that happens, often people mind's shut off.

But censorware is not intrinsically about parents using it on children. Censorware is not even fundamentally about sex. It's about control. Censorware is about an authority preventing a subject from reading material considered harmful by the authority. That's the technical requirement. The software has no concept of what types of control are philosophically acceptable (and which are not).

The technology is neutral only in that the program doesn't care if it's used by a parent, a corporation, or a government. Those are social distinctions, not technological ones. Some governments feel that they are acting as parent-leaders with regard to their child-masses. This leads to efforts such as "The Great Firewall of China".

Can censorware work? Well, I've always thought it would be very difficult to completely shut-out sex, a topic of interest to perhaps 99% of the population. But there aren't very many people interested in exchanging information about, for example, Tibetan independence from China.

But laws imposing censorware on schools and libraries were inevitable. It makes no rational sense to argue to a parent that censorware will protect their child from being harmed from reading injurious, mind-rotting material - yet a school or library will not take similar steps against the putative danger. If you put someone in a blinder-box, they can't ever be allowed to escape. Not at school, not in a library, not anywhere.

Note, despite the way the current debate is framed, the law applies censorware to adults too. Why waste a perfectly good blinder-box?

The same control imperatives lead censorware to ban privacy services, anonymizers, and even language-translation sites. Because those are security-holes, escape-routers from the necessity of complete control. Anonymous, private, unmonitored reading simply can't be permitted, as then the person might be able to see forbidden material.

So, we'll find out - maybe you can censor the Internet.

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