May 08, 2006

"Hoodwinking the censors", and funding anti-censorship

"Hoodwinking the censors" is an interesting article about anti-censorship software being developed at the OpenNet Initiative [Update: Citizen Lab ] (hat tip: Philipp Lenssen). I'm going to skip the technical issues of the subject, and take the article as an opportunity to write a fragment of memoirs applicable to the "inside view of net-politics" part of the description line above (note I know at least two people appearing in the article will be reading this post, both of whom have kindly encouraged me to continue this blog, which is all the disclaimer necessary!). Namely, money:

More than a few people view the work of the Citizen Lab, and Psiphon, as important. The ONI as a whole receives funding from several major U.S. foundations that promote peace and democracy, including a recent $3 million from the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago. In addition, the Citizen Lab has received money from the New York-based Open Society Institute, which supports human rights projects and whose patron is billionaire George Soros.

At some point in late 2003, early 2004, somewhere in the mix of my winning a DMCA victory, and being turned down in the n'th attempt at getting a policy position, it became clear that if I wanted to seriously continue with Internet freedom activism, I was going to have to set up my own organization. Appoint myself Executive Director of something like "The Center For Censorware Studies". Go after foundation funding for money, maybe do the conference circuit.

I seriously considered it. But it just didn't seem like a workable idea. At the time, I'd gone through draining unemployment from the tech-wreck, and the programming market was finally picking up. Inversely, getting funding seemed like it was going to require a lot of work in competition with organizations which were far better "connected" than I was (Harvard!), so I'd be at an extreme disadvantage.

Sometimes people would suggest working for an existing group in a support role, but that was extremely problematic. Nobody wanted the specialized technical decryption work, it's not cost-effective for its legal risk. For generic programming, they could hire someone much less senior than me. And it wasn't a resume-enhancing job for me either. So, purely as a job, it was hardly a good deal for either side. Compare:

The third member of the Psiphon team, 42-year-old Michael Hull, was hired in January to make the program user-friendly. ... Trained in physics, Hull sold his document encryption company in 2003. "Over the years I've been building commercial, private software to solve problems for corporations," Hull says. "So this is nice because it kind of flips it all around. It's a way to give back while I have a chance."

Good for him. But it's why I sometimes say I regret doing so much unpaid anti-censorship effort, and not taking my chance at the tech IPO goldrush when money was falling from the skies (or at least it seemed that way). It seems that in order to do such activism, one has to be (the following are not exclusive):
1) Professional policy person (lawyer, lobbyist, etc)
2) Institutionally supported (i.e. an academic)
3) Independently wealthy *or* unconcerned with employment
And, sadly, I don't fit any of the categories, or been able to find a functional way to get myself into any of the categories. I've never been able to solve this "business model" problem. sad face

[Update: Prof. Ronald Deibert says there's a Psiphon FAQ]

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in activism , memoirs | on May 08, 2006 05:34 PM (Infothought permalink)
Seth Finkelstein's Infothought blog (Wikipedia, Google, censorware, and an inside view of net-politics) - Syndicate site (subscribe, RSS)

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There is a market for censorware.
I wouldn't buy it so I don't look for it, but someone is making cash from it.

From what I have read the problem is that it is uniformly and deliberately obscure in how it operates at a technical level.

Write (or maintain and support a GPL/BSD/etc , hell even closed source if you can withstand the wrath of RMS) an extensible tweakable censorware product. For schools, libraries, corporations, small business, even for the fundies (especially them as they have cash - sell the licences based on the size of their congregation).

As the blocking parameters, rules and algorithms could be tweaked to suit the client (through a user defined and Seth supported list format), everybody would get what they want.

Then you can rag on the others (or have the hacks do it for you) through the trade magazines/blogs for being backward, obsolete, not Web2.0. The only way to defend themselves is open up. Or they can sue. But that is what the money is for.

Be the problem, not the solution. Until you get bought out.

Posted by: Ian at May 10, 2006 08:24 AM

Sigh. You've re-invented Open Source Censorware.

1) There are already people doing it - the fact that you haven't heard of them shows how successful it is.

2) Censorware is bought mostly on marketing, not quality.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at May 10, 2006 10:55 PM

3) Censorware is inherently user-hostile, and therefore evil.

Posted by: David at May 12, 2006 09:05 AM