November 29, 2004

An A-list compliment on blog power

Doc Searls says nice things about me: (in reference to comments I made in a Jay Rosen PressThink article on Dan Rather:

Anyway, I'm not here to write about Jay or Dan. I'm here to point toward one standout among the many thoughtful folks who comment on Jay's piece: Seth Finkelstein.

And the exchange is quoted extensively (... Seth says ...) Particularly portions where I wrote:

... No, ordinary people cannot talk back. Large right-wing rant-machines can talk back. There is a difference, and don't confuse the two.

Jay, when the report does come out, can I pre-emptively plead for an attempt to get beyond the, err, master narrative here? That is, I expect a torrent then of: "Blah blah blah *THE Internet*! Blah blah *B*L*O*G*S*!! It's a new era!!!". etc. etc. You in particular are very well-situated to write an insightful article on the deep pressthinking processes within CBS.


... it's a mathematical fact that we all can't have a million readers. The distribution of readership is *highly* exponential. IN TERMS OF POLITICS, there are a very, very few, people who have a meaningful audience, and everyone else is just chatting to friends. If one of the editors does not select your letter for publication, I mean, one of the A-listers doesn't select your post for linking, then the ordinary person might just as well be blowing-off to bar buddies for all the effect it has. Again, this is just mathematics. The power law curve can't be wished away. ...

With regard to Dan Rather and CBS, there is a pack of right-wing attack-dogs which has hated them for *decades*. When they (Dan Rather and CBS) goofed-up - and they did, no way around that - the pack pounced with all their fury. It's not citizens vs. Mainstream Media. It's Right-Wing Partisan Media vs. Mainstream Media.

And concludes

In the meantime at the very least it helps to have sharp folks like Seth remind us how far off we can be.

For more on Seth, dig this interview in GrepLaw, where we learn that Seth, like Dave, went to More Science High.

Thank you. (I'll quit this article while I'm ahead!).

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in cyberblather | on November 29, 2004 11:59 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Followups
November 24, 2004

"EFFector" (EFF newsletter) CDA trial mention / credit

Credt ... Credit ... I'm mentioned in the current issue of EFF's newsletter, "EFFector", which has coverage of the Nitke case:

Last month, the case came to trial to resolve a number of disputed factual matters. The two-day trial featured testimony by expert witnesses including UK security expert Ben Laurie and EFF Pioneer Award Winner Seth Finkelstein, both of whom testified that trying to determine the true physical locations of Internet users is both difficult and costly.


NCSF press release on the trial, annotated with links by expert witness Seth Finkelstein:

Thanks much.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in legal | on November 24, 2004 12:18 AM | (Infothought permalink) | Followups
November 23, 2004

"Internet Filtering in Saudi Arabia in 2004" from OpenNet Initiative

"Internet Filtering in Saudi Arabia in 2004" has just been released by the OpenNet Initiative. This studies the implementation of censorware in Saudi Arabia (which uses "SmartFilter"). Disclosure: There was once some talk of my being hired as part of this project, but that was many months ago, and as far as I know, it's now a very dead idea for reasons ranging from cost to baggage - so don't suggest it, please!

I'm cited twice in the footnotes, which warms my heart. Approximately zero people have followed those footnotes to my site, so it's not going to be a source of readers, though it's good to know at least one person read that work.

In terms of what I've just been discussing currently regarding my Censored Censorware Reports, this passage from the report is very relevant:

Fourth, we base SmartFilter categorizations on tests run using the SmartFilterWhere tool ... The SmartFilterWhere tool lets users check SmartFilter's current categorization of a URL in three versions (version 4, version 3.x Standard, and version 3.x Premium) of the software. The tool does not allow checking a URL's past categorization; thus, it can be difficult to determine whether a URL's classification has changed over time. SmartFilter categories change frequently; of the roughly 26,000 URLs we checked on both dates, 10% changed between dates through having at least one category added to or removed from the URL.

Sigh. Guess what? I WROTE THIS TOOL FOUR YEARS AGO!. That is, I wrote a tool which did not have the limitations of SmartFilter's little web form, a tool which allowed past testing (if one has the past blacklists).

I couldn't publish it. Remember, even the DMCA exemption specifically does not cover tools.

This is where everything such as attacks by famous lawyers to Slashdot's actions, all matters. As a human being, I just can't smile while deeply worried about potentially being smeared and sued.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in censorware | on November 23, 2004 10:57 AM | (Infothought permalink) | Followups
November 18, 2004

No friend-of-the-court ("amicus") brief reverse-engineering activism for me

I've finished discussing with a civil-liberties lawyer if we were going to respond to EFF's call for friend-of-the-court ("amicus") legal briefs to make arguments to try to reverse the atrocious anti-fair-use, anti-reverse-engineering, pro-DMCA, outcome of the Blizzard v. BNETD decision.

Note, in contrast to the subject matter of my last few posts, this wasn't an issue of my possibly being sued (well, not directly anyway). Rather, it was whether we were both going to volunteer to do supplemental work in the case. The possible collaboration idea was that, as a lawyer, he'd do the necessary formatting, structuring the argument in proper form, take care of the procedural details, and I'd handle as much of the draft writing as a nonlawyer could do, and possibly whatever technical factual research was needed.

Much went into discussion, about various possible angles and certain confidential matters. But before anyone reads wrongly between the lines, we didn't have any "personality conflict" (it helps that, e.g. we have a similar regard about some other people ...). But sadly, I eventually decided I didn't want to take on the effort.

I could have done it in theory. It would have been a lot of work, writing and doing supporting research. But almost certainly, I would get virtually no points, no "whuffie", no reputation-credit, for co-writing that amicus brief. At best, I'd have to run around with my poor contacts asking "Will you please echo this? Kindly report this? A-lister, I beg from you the boon which is notice of me. ...".

Frankly, I'd rather not go through it. This is another specific instance where I'd decided to stop fighting for freedom of the Internet. On a personal level, it's not worth it.

This post is not a pleasant one, and I'll probably get some flack for writing it. But in terms of activism, I think it's important to document how the attacks, the lack of recognition, the marginalization, have a destructive effect.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in activism | on November 18, 2004 11:59 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (1) | Followups
November 16, 2004

Reports You Won't See - A Survey Of Censorware Cryptography

[Another Censored Censorware Report]

Having examined more censorware internals than anyone else in the world, I've considered there might be an interesting academic survey paper describing the encryption algorithms employed various programs. It ranges all the way from the trivial encryption of "XOR" with a single byte (the original version of CyberSitter), to the full-blown Data Encryption Standard (DES). Of course, using the power of the Data Encryption Standard algorithm doesn't help too much when they give out the key in first place if one knows where to look.

Digression: During the DMCA exemptions testimony, when censorware company representative David Burt was taking the tactic that no American military was in Iraq no censorware decryption had been done, I thought of replying along the lines of "David, does the string [recite N2H2's private decryption key] mean anything to you?". But sadly, as a mere PR flack, he probably could have truthfully answered that the random letter/number combination which was N2H2's private decryption key, did not mean anything to him (and I couldn't remember it right then anyway).

But in terms of lawsuits, this isn't playing with fire, it's playing with WMD's (Weapons Of Mass Destruction). Or Lawsuits Of Massive Damages. A few years ago, when CyberPatrol sued two programmers, they opened with a $75,000 damage claim. Remember, that was just the start. These days, given the success of the music industry litigation tactic of loading up on claims of huge damages, gallows humor is whether a censorware lawsuit would confine itself to claiming mere millions of dollars, or go for billions of dollars.

Let's recall, even the DMCA 1201(g) research exemption is full of wiggles such as:

... the person made a good faith effort to obtain authorization before the circumvention;

[elsewhere] ... whether the information derived from the encryption research was disseminated, and if so, whether it was disseminated in a manner reasonably calculated to advance the state of knowledge or development of encryption technology, versus whether it was disseminated in a manner that facilitates infringement under this title or a violation of applicable law other than this section, including a violation of privacy or breach of security;

... whether the person is engaged in a legitimate course of study, is employed, or is appropriately trained or experienced, in the field of encryption technology; ...

There's almost a paradox here, in that low-hanging research fruit is likely snapped-up already by high-ranking researchers, leaving hard foraging for those further down the ranks. But that's exactly the sort of work which is going to involve more risk, yet at the same time apparently has less legal protection, because one almost needs to already have good formal credentials ("appropriately trained or experienced") in order to qualify in the first place! (i.e., want a job, get some experience, want some experience, get a job).

A paper which does very little for me personally, but has a reasonable chance of pauperizing litigation, yet I have no organization backing, is all a losing proposition. I am chilled.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in censorware , legal | on November 16, 2004 11:59 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (4) | Followups
November 15, 2004

Banned Censorware Report - SmartFilter Reverse-Engineering

[I'm returning to my series of Censored Censorware Reports, where I describe research I cannot publish due to the lawsuit risk, and corresponding lack of necessary legal and journalistic support.]

There isn't all that much to describe regarding this report, because it was intended to outline some reverse-engineering of the censorware program SmartFilter. It's hard to give details here without actually writing the material, and so defeating the purpose.

However, the following news item, from Susan Crawford, should make the derailed and destroyed report relevant and perhaps even poignant (my emphasis below):

3. Speaking of EFF, they're looking for amicus briefs to be filed by December 22, 2004 in the Blizzard v. Internet Gateway case in the 8th Circuit. The district court decision [pdf] in that case upholds a very broad license agreement forbidding any kind of reverse engineering or fair use; key issues before the appellate court will be preemption and the scope of the 1201(f) exception in the DMCA for reverse engineering.

("Blizzard v. Internet Gateway" is the same case as the previously mentioned Blizzard vs BNETD, that's just a variation in the name)

Note it's unclear if my plight would even be fodder for an amicus ("friend of the court") brief here. There are legal details I don't completely understand, having to do with rules that appeals are supposed to refer only to facts already in the trial record. This is very different from e.g. the (failed) "affirmative" case against N2H2, where the facts there were developed specifically for the legal challenge.

It's not worth years of litigation to publish this research, even if I eventually won. Not when there's so little backing and support.

[Update: I should have explained than an amicus brief is by "someone who is not a party to the litigation, but who believes that the court's decision may affect its interest." - I hope the application is obvious ...]

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in censorware , legal | on November 15, 2004 11:59 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Followups
November 14, 2004

Echo Statistics - Where The Referers Are

It's been a while since I did some detailed Readership Analysis, so I went and checked over my logs to get some fresh data. I wanted to answer the question: "What's the best I've done recently at being heard, and where?".

For all of September and October, I had only one regular blog post which, again cumulative over the entire two months, registered over 1000 readers, specifically 1112 total unique IP address accesses. I know, I know, people will tell me not to complain, there are bloggers starving in Africa (or enslaved in Sudan). But this is my absolute personal best for over two months - and note it's less than one popular Slashdot comment, or the daily readership for some not even A-list.

The stand-out item was the BNETD / Blizzard entry, which concerned the horror of that court decision for fair use. The echoes broke down from major sources as follows:

Total = 1112 (excludes constant regular blog audience)

freedom-to-tinker discussion1029.2%
Wes Felter echo857.6%
Ernest Miller echo716.4%
Google searches on keywords (later)877.8%
Groklaw discussion mention464.1% (i.e. later blog entries)393.5%

Not exactly a Slashdot effect, but instructive in the distribution.

No echoes == no audience.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in statistics | on November 14, 2004 11:59 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (2) | Followups
November 12, 2004

PR Flacking / Reputation-Credit Blues

I've written the following sentiments before, but I'll do it again: The blog-blather hyping no-barriers is misleading and downright cruel.

In the last few days, I've been trying to flack the previously-mentioned CDA trial press release. Besides the free-speech merits of fighting to keep the Internet uncensored, I'm told there's a personal reputation-building opportunity.

So, I want to be heard by more than the itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny fan audience. Note there's a connection here between the general very limited influence of non-A-list bloggers, and the specific lack of success I have in getting reputation-credit: It doesn't help much to repeat things to the same people who already have their opinions (positive or negative ...).

But the moment one goes beyond writing a public diary, and chatting with friends, to wanting to reach people outside the immediate social circle, the existence of gatekeepers is manifest. A small blogger trying to get an echo from a BigBlog is almost exactly a freelance writer trying to get an article accepted by an editor of a publication. Sure, you have the option of vanity publishing it yourself, cheaply nowadays. But to a very good approximation, barring the extremely rare lighting-strikes event, then nobody will read it.

To me, flacking is tiring, stressful, and not very successful. Some notes:

I asked someone at Slashdot if there was any policy at all about abusive editors who have obvious, blatant, personal grudges. No reply, but then, I didn't expect one.

I can't trust Greplaw anymore :-(.

I did manage to get gatekept into Dave Faber's IP mailing list, which is about the best I've achieved so far.

While maybe I haven't exhausted all options, I've nearly exhausted all I can manage :-(.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in activism | on November 12, 2004 01:03 AM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (9) | Followups
November 08, 2004

PR for "Barbara Nitke and National Coalition for Sexual Freedom v John Ashcroft"

Nitke v. Ashcroft case # (01 CIV 11476 (RMB)) press release excerpt:

Full version:

Challenge to the Communications Decency Act

Contact: Susan Wright, Spokesperson

October 29, 2004, New York City - Testimony concluded on October 28, 2004, in Barbara Nitke and National Coalition for Sexual Freedom v John Ashcroft, in the Federal District Court for the Southern District of NY, case # 01 CIV 11476 (RMB). This lawsuit is challenging an unconstitutional law called the Communications Decency Act (CDA) which criminalizes free speech on the Internet. Plaintiffs are represented by noted First Amendment attorney, John Wirenius.
The reliability of geolocation software was challenged by testimony from Ben Laurie of The Apache Software Foundation. Seth Finkelstein, a computer technical expert, testified about the conflicts between geolocation software and the protection of privacy. Geolocation software allows website hosts to block visitors from certain states or areas of states. This is a critical component of the case because obscenity is determined by "local community standards." Testimony was sharply divided over the accuracy of geolocation software, varying over a range of 60-95% effective. ...

[Note this case concerns provisions of the Communications Decency Act, such as the definition of obscenity and its "community standards" aspect, which were not addressed in Communications Decency Act cases such as Reno v. ACLU]

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in legal | on November 08, 2004 09:07 AM | (Infothought permalink)
November 06, 2004

"Not even a gay, blogging Jesus could help"

These articles say it to many more people than I could reach:

How organized religion, not net religion, won it for Bush (Ashlee Vance)

Nerd party needed to replace 'left-wing' Democrats, says area man (Andrew Orlowski)

But in honor of the Votes, Bits and Bytes punditry, I'll point to my own previous article:

Mathematics of ordinary-blog non-influence

[Self-referentially, practically, nobody read it in the first place, or will read it now :-(]

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in cyberblather | on November 06, 2004 11:59 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (1) | Followups
November 04, 2004

Digital Media Consumers' Rights Act (DMCRA) hearing transcript posted

The DMCRA hearing from a while back (the "DMCRA" is the "anti-DMCA" law) seems to have its transcripts available now. They're not (yet) on the specific page. But way, way, down, on the general hearing transcripts page, look for the line which reads:

"Serial No. 108-109 -- The Digital Media Consumers' Rights Act of 2003, May 12, 2004 TEXT 498K PDF 3.7M"

Get the PDF if you have the bandwidth, it has material that's only present as scanned images. Including Lessig's letter after the hearing, which addresses very directly the property-rights vs. fair-use argument (buried way down towards the end, around page 129).

[Scoop? Scoop? Must credit Seth Finkelstein's Infothought! :-)]

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in copyblight | on November 04, 2004 06:18 AM | (Infothought permalink) | Followups
November 03, 2004

ITConversations "Law and IT" Bnetd v. Blizzard case show appearance

Ernest Miller does a net radio show for ITConversations about "Law and IT"

He's now posted a show about the Blizzard v . BNETD case with guests law professor Michael Madison and me.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in copyblight | on November 03, 2004 01:19 AM | (Infothought permalink) | Followups
November 02, 2004

Why You Should Vote For John Kerry

Normally I don't write about pure politics, since if my influence on Internet freedom is marginal, my influence on the electoral process isn't even a speck on the page. But given the closeness of the Presidential race, today might be a day where it's literally true that if what I write changes just one reader's mind, it reasonably might make a difference.

Vote for John Kerry.

Here's why.

Now, I know that if Kerry does win, I'll have to endure much finger-pointing of the form "Nyah, nyah, nyah. You said to vote for Kerry, and he did *this*, And *that*. And yada-yada ...". It's easy to argue fantasy against reality. We must deal with degrees of difference.

Ralph Nader is being a spoiler. The US electoral system does not support minor third-party candidates. They have the effect of siphoning votes. That's the facts of the matter.

Having lived in Massachusetts for more than 20 years, I've seen John Kerry over the long term. He's got no charisma, but he is thoroughly competent at his job.

More importantly, despite all the campaign noise, there really is a signal which comes through, and very strongly on the issue of security. The Kerry team believes in US power, but the Bush team believes in US empire. I assert the US would in fact be safer under a Kerry administration than a Bush administration. George Bush's foreign adventurism of an Iraq war is like a grotesque version of the old joke about the drunk who searches for his missing keys under a lamppost because the light is better there. I'm impressed, in a negative manner, how the Bush administration has to keep coming up with some sort of "link" between Iraq to Osama Bin Laden, some way to put them into the same category, in order to justify an outright war. If any country deserved to be invaded for connections to Osama Bin Laden (especially funding), that country was Saudi Arabia. And Bush, given his family and personal background, is far too entangled with the Saudi monarchy to credibly oppose it.

In contrast, John Kerry knows all about wrong wars in the wrong place in the wrong time, about ripping the country apart for ill-considered policy. Posturing wins no battles, bullets are remarkably ignorant of speeches. Iraq isn't Vietnam. But there's enough in common so that John Kerry saw the end of a similar path which George Bush seems determined to take, and it doesn't end in a pretty place.

This doesn't even address all the issues of George Bush being set to load the Supreme Court with even more right-wing fanatics, or to pay for the war(s?) with an even larger deficit, and so on.

It's not about "character" or "family values" or any such nebulous quantity. It's very clear, about bad wars paid for with bad economics, as opposed to understanding that war is not a sport and has a price. That's why:

Vote for John Kerry.

[Update: Well, I tried ...]

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in politics | on November 02, 2004 01:29 AM | (Infothought permalink) | Followups
November 01, 2004

"Votes, Bits & Bytes" conference schedule, and Punditry != Democracy

The conference schedule was just posted for the Harvard Votes, Bits & Bytes conference. Apparently they didn't care for my suggestions, as I don't see much of a skeptical presence.

My summary thought:

How many problems are there in this world where the solution is: more punditry?

Now, I don't believe talking itself is bad. But talking *only* about how great it is to talk, tends to be very bad.

On a personal note: It's a free conference, local to me, and I could physically attend. But I decided to pass. That decision was a manifestation of my further activism turning-point, from the attacks on me in the Mike Godwin and Greplaw case. I still haven't written up my final take on it all, but I was serious about it having an effect. I suppose the Berkman Center wouldn't outright deny me registration. But there's just no point any more.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in cyberblather | on November 01, 2004 11:59 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Followups