March 04, 2004

Internet Censorship Law and Censorware Politics

I probably shouldn't waste my time writting these posts, but the recent net censorship Supreme Court argument struck a deep chord with me:

Ms. Beeson argued that there were less restrictive alternatives to the pornography law: parents could now take matters into their own hands by using Internet filtering software and configuring it to reflect their own values. Congress already requires that schools and libraries use filters.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Antonin Scalia seemed skeptical of that argument, however, and both noted that the civil liberties union had opposed the library filtering bill. Mr. Olson also noted that a number of Web sites gave step-by-step instructions on defeating the technology.

Here - not ancient history, not years ago, but this week's Supreme Court Internet censorship law arguments - is an illustration of the problem I faced for so many years. Because the part of the civil-liberties strategy was, and remains, arguing favorably about censorware in this legal context. See Peter Junger's "least restrictive means" message for the best legal analysis (in my view).

I never opposed this as a legal argument. But for too long, for too many prominent people, that legal argument turned into a social argument for touting censorware. And so ...

If you said censorware didn't work, you were going against the strategy.

And that was bad. And thus the censorware critics had to be discredited. And here my trouble began.

In 1995, when I first decrypted censorware. I called my then-friend Mike Godwin, famous net.legend Internet civil-liberties lawyer, for help. Well, at that time, he was making policy advocacy statements such as:

This is why I believe that the right role for Congress to play is to encourage the development of software filters that prevent my child and others from being harmed in the first place.

Recall that the basic technology we're talking about here is the computer -- the most flexible, programmable, "intelligent" technology we build and market.

-- Mike Godwin, 1995 Congressional testimony

Thus he was not pleased to be informed about censorware's lack of "intelligent" technology. And I got an earful of all the (my description) dirty deals that were trying to be cut behind the scenes. I suppose now it's no secret that the ACLU blew me off when I tried to get their help (I still have the messages). But they didn't go on a personal attack-campaign about it.

Anyway, much has happened since then. However, some of the fundamental paradoxes are still in evidence - this week, in the Supreme Court.

I note this in an attempt at a "teachable moment". When I try to explain the background of censorware politics, the factors which caused things to evolve as they did, I often get trivialization and dismissiveness ("Petty bickering! Size measuring! Pissing contest!"). It's so easy to scream "EGO!", which means you don't have to think about anything.

There were, and are, reasons which drove it all, and still matter right now. But looking back on how it affected me, over nearly a decade: If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn't. Personally, it wasn't worth it.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in activism , censorware , legal | on March 04, 2004 11:59 PM (Infothought permalink) | Followups
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I think the larger point here is that there are a couple of different strategies you can take in life. One is to adopt a position, an ideology, and then fight for it. Find and publicize all the evidence you can that supports it, hide the evidence that opposes it, change your position on factual matters from day to day depending on whether they help or hurt the argument you are trying to make at that time.

The other strategy is to look for the truth, and let that be a guide to your actions. You'll still acquire positions and beliefs, but they will be flexible, provisional, always open to rebuttal and alteration. When facts are uncomfortable, you face them squarely, and let the chips fall as they may.

Now, obviously these are somewhat exaggerated and stereotyped characterizations; no one is purely in one camp or the other. But I do feel that far too many people in our community adopt the first approach, putting their goals ahead of their methods, letting the ends justify the means.

I see you, in contrast, as basically a truth seeker. This is why you are so often out of sync with the rest of the community, not just on this issue, but on many issues in the past. Reading your blog, I am frequently surprised and delighted to see constructive criticism directed towards weak ideas which all too often become the conventional wisdom in the privacy community.

I can understand that this has come at a cost to you; it is one reason why I present my comments from behind a pseudonym. But you should try to take heart from the knowledge that ultimately, the truth makes a better foundation for policy and argumentation than fiction. By providing those truths, even uncomfortable ones, you are performing a valuable service.

Posted by: Cypherpunk at March 5, 2004 02:57 PM

Sorry that you feel that way. I did not get paid for my thousands of hours of activism either. But when I saw footnote #1 on June 23rd, I new instantly it had all been worth it. As a nice bonus, I leveraged it into an enjoyable and well-paying career. And I've moved on, and so should you.

Posted by: Jim Faith at March 6, 2004 12:07 AM

Cypherpunk: Thank you very much for your thoughtful comments. The problem, however, is that I find I win no prizes for my efforts - it's not popular, and there's no return. The cost was, in retrospect, too much.

David, err, "Jim": The key is that "enjoyable and well-paying career". It makes all the difference. For me, moving on means quitting (because of the aforementioned cost).

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at March 8, 2004 10:55 AM

How about the EFF Pioneer Award? How much does that kind of recognition mean to you, in retrospect?

Posted by: Cypherpunk at March 8, 2004 05:12 PM

My saying: I love having won an EFF Pioneer Award. But I can neither eat it, wear it, nor sleep in it.

Moreover, it sadly turned out to be less recognition than one might think, because people don't hear of it, compared to the reach of attacks on me.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at March 9, 2004 08:09 AM