September 23, 2003

Time For Me To Quit Censorware Investigations, aka BACKER NEEDED

If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There's no point in being a damn fool about it. - W. C. Fields

Everyone has a breaking point, and it's been evident for a while that I've essentially reached mine. "Banned Books Week" is a good place to drive a stake into it. To differentiate this message, I'm having "Banned Research Week" where I'll outline specific research I can't complete and publish.

I quit. I'm giving up. I tried and tried, and I don't succeed. That is, after all I've done, over years and years, I still have no pay, no press-platform, no protection from lawsuits. I can't continue to fight against censorware as an unpaid, mostly marginalized, activist lacking any organizational backing. It's not sustainable.

The dismal mathematics seems unarguable. I cannot win, in terms of myself. It's not my job, I don't advance in a career, and frankly, I get precious little respect (not 0.00%, but very close to it). However, I can lose, BIG. At best, I might have to endure long draining litigation, stressful and destructive even if, on the off-chance, I were to prevail. And if I don't prevail, the consequences would be even worse. It's not worth it.

In retrospect, after I won an EFF Pioneer Award, I made what turned out to be an enormous error. I then did a large amount of decryption-based censorware research, as opposed to intensively seeking a policy-based affiliation. I thought I was on track to be a towering DMCA hero. I believed I had a pledge of (Slashdot-based!) press support, as well as legal backing. And that I could afford to volunteer. Well, it's a long story, but things didn't work out that way. The tech economy crashed, and many other legal cases superseded me. Moreover, either I was mistaken about the pledge of Slashdot support, or the person making it later decided to renege (without the courtesy of informing me).

The final result is I have to write-off a large amount of that research (some of which has already rotted away). Between "shouting to the wind" (nobody reading my work) and "telling it to the judge" (the inevitable result of publish work that absolutely will be read), I've been silenced.

Formally, this might be considered a call for backing and support. If manna from heaven came to me, if an organization said they'd give me press support and legal protection (not to mention some pay), then it might be possible for me to continue censorware work. But honestly, I have no illusions of success.

Note, please don't tell me, e.g., "Don't let the bastards grind you down". They did grind me down, by leveraging the power of the legal system to grind me up. Any advice must consider: How does this change the problems of 1) pay 2) press-platform 3) protection from lawsuits? If that isn't answered, it's not helpful.

Sadly, I've been "taken down", and to a great extent, by my own "side".

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in activism , censorware , memoirs | on September 23, 2003 08:05 AM (Infothought permalink) | Followups
Seth Finkelstein's Infothought blog (Wikipedia, Google, censorware, and an inside view of net-politics) - Syndicate site (subscribe, RSS)

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You know, if you became a lawyer you could get both cash and legal protection. Downside: it's expensive and time-consuming.

Posted by: Aaron Swartz at September 24, 2003 09:09 AM

Yes - particularly that "time-consuming and expensive" aspect. At this point in my life (38.75 - pushing uncomfortably close to 40), I have no desire to switch professions, go back to school for three years, forego income and take on debt, and then start working up from the bottom of a new hierarchy. I've found programming to be a very congenial fit for me, or at least it was during the boom (no suit and tie needed!).

So, thanks, the idea's been considered, but doesn't look workable in practice.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at September 24, 2003 10:10 AM

A lot of "secrets" saw the light after being posted anonymously on a public mailing list. Cypherpunks list saw many such examples already. A shell account or a proxy in a country with no DMCA, and an assumed identity of a local, can serve as another layer of protection. The same effect can be achieved by a trusted foreign person loaning his/her identity for publication purposes - during communism, many local writers used this tactics to get their works published through their friends.
They can't sue if they don't know whom.

Posted by: Shaddack at September 28, 2003 06:04 AM

I did much in that way in the past. No more. I have so many stories about this :-(.

It doesn't work for me. Research needs someone standing behind it. When using a front, the "trusted" person gets all the credit, with little of the risk. And what happens if they see advantage in betraying me later? In fact, that's exactly what helped derail and destroy the censorware report I'm blogging about now.

I'm not going to play "anonymity" games. Maybe it works for other people. But again, I've had very bad experiences. Fundamentally, as a strategy, it's still having me endure the entire burden, with no support.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at September 28, 2003 07:00 AM

I'm not sure I understand.

1) Is your censorware research such that no interesting part of it can be done in a less time-consuming way so that you could simultaneously pursue some other for-pay career?

2) Is your censorware research such that no interesting part of it can be done without a larger press-platform than you have now?

3) Is your censorware research such that no interesting part of it can be done without more protection from lawsuits than you have now? (I'd expect that your EFF connection gives you at least the hope of pro bono representation, though there is more to "protection" than that.) (Another key word is "done" not "published".)

It seems to me unlikely that the answer to one or two could be "yes". Perhaps "the bastards grinding you down" will necessitate a slow-down in your work, but must it cease? And even if you currently feel your press platform is lacking. There are many, like me, who link to and read your blog. You also get Slashdot coverage, such as it is, which many people do not.

But your third concern seems more crucial. If you're convinced that publishing your research or perhaps even continuing it will subject you to ruinous legal liability then your options become much more limited. Even given that, you could move to a country without the DMCA. This is likely inconvenient to say the least. But if fear of legal liability truly is the number one thing that makes it impossible for your research to continue, then it seems to me that you should articulate clearly what research projects of yours are being stifled and then connect to and work with those who take such problems seriously until the legal landscape changes. There are many groups who are very interested in the freedom to research and channeling your energy into those activities would be a great good, if you're convinced the research itself cannot presently continue (which I feel is a greater good).

I'm sad to read your post. I've always thought your were doing interesting stuff. But since you've already said not to tell you to not let them grind you down, I don't feel I can grieve as I'd like. If it helps at all, I'm mad as hell that this has happened to you.

Posted by: Brian at September 30, 2003 05:46 AM

Thanks for the mad-as-hell. The problems are all connected. Why was I doing this censorware work? Because I thought it was important to keeping the net free (really, that was my motive, it's not a PR line).

But if almost nobody hears it, because of no press-platform (item #2), why do it if it has no effect? And if it has no effect, why devote any effort (item #1)? But then if in the temptation to have press coverage and effect, I push legal boundaries (item #3), that could be devastating to me.

Very sadly, there aren't many who read my blog and link to me. I've examined the numbers frequently. There's only a few dozen readers of my blog. Several times I've lamented that a Slashdot thread - just a few comments - will yield more referred readership than my baseline (I call this a "Slashdot Reflect")

It's a major issue for me to get Slashdot coverage. And for years now, it's been for comparatively minor things, with no willingness whatsoever to discuss support for major censorware research. In fact, if you're interested, you can read about my Slashdot code proposal from a while back. That was super-high-stakes, and not respected at all.

I'm indeed in the process of articulating clearly what research projects are being stifled. That's my Banned Research page. Previously, I didn't want to tip my hand. It's a slow process though, since this is a painful and unhappy topic.

Moving to another country won't help. There is no escape. Remember, Jon Johansen of DeCSS prosecution is in Norway.

Certainly many groups are interested in these topics. But unless I'm going to become a lawyer (see earlier comment), there doesn't seem much of role for me beyond cheerleader. And I'm not a very good cheerleader.

It may be interesting research. But it's not supported research :-(.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at September 30, 2003 11:08 PM