Navigation: Return to: Seth Finkelstein - EFF 2001 Pioneer Award or Anticensorware Investigations

Seth Finkelstein's EFF Pioneer Award - Eric Grimm's nomination

Date: February 1, 2001
To: EFF Pioneer Awards Committee From: Eric C. Grimm, CyberBrief, PLC
Re: Nomination and Endorsement of Seth Finkelstein - Founding Member of The Censorware Project and Leading Cryptanalyst of Internet Censorship or "Filtering" Software - for EFF Pioneer Award.

If the criterion for selection of EFF Pioneer Award winners is the extent to which nominees have worked tirelessly and voluntarily to "[make] a substantial contribution to the health, growth, accessibility, [and] freedom of computer-based communications," then I can think of no person more deserving of this year's award than Seth Finkelstein. I respectfully nominate Seth for the Pioneer Award because -- from the standpoint of preserving freedom on the "electronic frontier" -- Seth is the very model of a resourceful and principled Internet pioneer.

Seth's telephone number is [SF: redacted]. His email address is sethf[at-sign] Seth is a talented programmer with a deep and firm personal commitment to civil liberties. He has volunteered his enviable talents and thousands and thousands of hours of his personal time over the past six or more years, in the support of online civil liberties issues. Among his many contributions (but certainly not his only claim to fame) has been Seth's role as the foremost technical expert on the defects and limitations of Internet censorship software (often, euphemistically, called "filtering" technology), and as a leading and effective opponent of government-mandated establishment of software-mediated censorship schemes.

The manufacturers of censorship software have attempted for many years to minimize public scrutiny of their products by using various encryption techniques to keep the "blacklists," or lists of blocked Websites, secret. These manufacturers have also gone to court on occasion, in an effort to harass and intimidate those who attempt to publicize the shortcomings of their software. This combination of encryption and litigation has been a potent one: Despite numerous studies and even more numerous anecdotal reports detailing how defective censorship software really is (especially when deployed in real-world environments), the manufacturers have nevertheless been able to drown out their critics' voices with a very effective pro-censorship public relations campaign that has persuaded many people (including far too many elected representatives) to accept uncritically the manufacturers' exaggerated and speculative claims about the utility of their products.

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1 Government installation of this software in schools and libraries involves many legal issues that are not raised by the private and voluntary installation of software in private homes.

2 I can personally thank Seth and Censorware Project member Jamie McCarthy for their efforts to help defeat the Holland initiative.

3 Many of the best arguments in the Loudon County case were a direct product of Seth's assistance to the attorneys representing Mainstream Loudon.

As recognized recently by the Library of Congress (which carved out an exception to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act's "reverse engineering" ban for exactly the kind of work Seth has pioneered), the threat posed to civil liberties by "censorware" is especially pronounced because of the secrecy of the "blacklists." In the past, several manufacturers have been known to use their secret blacklists to block access to Websites critical of their products - a transparently political effort to engage in suppression of disfavored viewpoints. Even now, examples of improper viewpoint-suppression using censorship software come to light almost daily, yet detecting these threats to freedom remains a difficult challenge because only a handful of skilled programmers have both the commitment and the technical competence to "reverse engineer" tieir way around the manufacturers' encryption schemes. Presumably, the overwhelming majority of violations go undetected because of the difficulty of unscrambling and analyzing each different and ever-changing "blacklist."

Seth was the first programmer ever to unscramble and analyze a blacklist. He has also personally unscrambled and exposed more blacklists than anyone else. The magnitude of his impact on preserving freedom, slowing the adoption of censorship software, and "shaming" manufacturers to stop the most egregious of abuses, cannot be celebrated enough. At the conclusion of this Nomination, I reprint a more extensive catalog (prepared by Jim Tyre of The Censorware Project, whose knowledge of specifics far surpasses my own) of some of the remarkable things Seth has done, on his own time, without compensation, for the good of the Internet community as a whole.

Prior to December 2000, Seth's issue - opposition to government-mandated deployment of "censorware" in schools and libraries1 - was an important issue in Internet circles, and one capable at a minimum of sparking vigorous debate in the local communities that confronted the issue from time to time. Heated debate occasionally reached flashpoint locally in such places as Holland Michigan,2 where a mandatory filtering ballot initiative was defeated last year at this time, or Loudon County, Virginia, where the leading court case to date on this issue was fought.3

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However, in December, the censorship software spark caught fire in Congress, triggering what threatens to become a nationwide conflagration, in which the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution appears to be directly in harm's way. With the passage of the Children's Internet Protection Act, as part of the Omnibus Appropriations Act in December 2000, the threat to civil liberties has literally exploded. The importance of Seth's issue has therefore increased by orders of magnitude.

The new statute conditions libraries' and schools' receipt of federal dollars upon the installation of censorship technology. The American Library Association and the American Civil Liberties Union have vowed to take the lead in challenging the CIPA. EFF has also volunteered to play an important role in any such legal challenges. The issues at stake in the upcoming litigation promise to be at least as profound for the future of the Internet as were the stakes in the ACLU v. Reno challenge to the Communications Decency Act. Realistically, the impact of the software case (because of the surreptitious content control that can be accomplished through the secret "blacklists") promises to be significantly more important in shaping the future of the Internet than even the issues at stake in the CDA litigation.

Recognizing Seth's contributions to online freedom this year, therefore, would be especially timely and appropriate. First, recognition of Seth's contributions would certainly enable the EFF and the Pioneer Awards Committee to emphasize the importance of stopping software-mediated censorship, as well as their own commitment to the fight for freedom on this front. But perhaps even more importantly - given the magnitude of the task ahead of us if we dare hope to defeat the threat to freedom posed by government-mandated censorware - recognizing Seth's work is especially salient today because Seth's tireless and principled dedication to this cause needs to be held up as a positive example for others to follow.

Both the EFF Staff and the EFF Board have doubtless been aware for some time of Seth's public contributions - both formal and informal - of time, talent and ideas, to issues and causes directly sponsored or supported by EFF. Even more substantial than Seth's EFFfocused contributions, however, have been Seth's commitment to and promotion of causes that EFF holds dear - such as the invaluable assistance he provided in the Mainstream Loudon case, or Seth's supporting role in the CDA litigation.

Most importantly, not all of Seth's work has been public. Rather, a substantial body of Seth's work toward the preservation of freedom and the open exchange of ideas on the Internet has been done on an anonymous basis. Although Seth's decision to work anonymously testifies to his priorities - which clearly involve a commitment to the truth and to fundamental principles of justice that vastly exceed any interest Seth may have in personal recognition or financial gain - at the same time, I believe it is important to recognize Seth's contributions (and,

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especially, to recognize them now) because of the importance of establishing positive examples for others to follow.

Since this Nomination has been long on practical "why" reasons for Seth to receive this year's award, and relatively short on "what" anecdotes - or summaries of specific tasks that Seth has performed, I want to close with a more concrete summary of some of Seth's specific accomplishments. The following is taken verbatim from a nomination presented to the Committee last year by James Tyre, another founding member of The Censorware Project:

Date: Sun, 12 Mar 2000 18:39:38 -0800 To: pioneer[at-sign] From: "James
S. Tyre" <j.s.tyre[at-sign]>

Ladies and Gentlemen: Please accept this email as a nomination of Seth Finkelstein for an EFF Pioneer Award at this year's CFP. Seth's telephone number is [SF: redacted], his email address is sethf[at-sign]

A few of you know me, most of you don't, so by way of quick introduction, I have been a practicing attorney in Southern California for 21 years. A portion of my practice always has been devoted to defending the right of free speech. More important, I am a founding member of The Censorware Project (CWP), with which many of you are familiar, and it is in that capacity that I make this nomination. Our web site is at

Seth also was a founding member, but he retired from CWP more than a year ago. The mission of CWP, ever since we got together in 1997, has been to expose the deep and incurable flaws of censorware (filtering software) by dissecting various products as few else have. In so doing, it has been our hope to educate the public, to make the public take a more critical look at the claims of the censorware vendors. We take no official position on the use of censorware in the home, but based on the complete inability of any current censorware package to block only speech which is not protected by the United States Constitution, we argue that the use of censorware in public institutions, such as public libraries and schools, is unconstitutional. Our major reports on various censorware products are:

Cyber Patrol:



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I like to think that we have made a difference, and in the only court case to challenge the mandatory use of censorware in a public library, in Loudoun County, Virginia, we certainly did. It is no secret that we were continuously feeding evidence of the overbroad and unconstitutional blocking of X-Stop to the lawyers from ACLU and People for the American Way who were handling the case on behalf of those challenging the library's policy, and based in part on that showing, the court ruled that the library's use of mandatory censorware was unconstitutional. See our archive of all case documents and our commentary at: However, I do not nominate CWP or any current member. I nominate Seth, our one former member, because of the unique contributions he made, not just to CWP itself, but since before there was a CWP, to educated discussion of the subject of censorware.

As long ago as 1995, when censorware was being argued in the original CDA case as a less restrictive alternative to the Communications Decency Act, Seth recognized the problems with censorware, both technical and societal. An extraordinary programmer, Seth knew that censorware could not do what its proponents were (and still are) arguing it could do. A student of history, he knew the inherent danger of private companies making decisions about which portions of the Internet should be censored, and implementing those decisions with secret, unaccountable and encrypted blacklists of "bad" web sites, newsgroups and keywords.

Commencing a substantial amount of work in late 1995, Seth successfully decrypted the blacklists of CYBERsitter, SurfWatch and Cyber Patrol, and obtained the Net Nanny list. Not surprisingly for him, the blocked sites of those products were littered with entries for sites which advocated safer sex, feminism, gay rights and anti-censorship positions, in addition to the porn sites which one might expect to be blocked by such products.

To get the word out, Seth collaborated with reporters Brock Meeks and Declan McCullagh on the now-infamous CyberWire Dispatch, "Keys to the Kingdom", on the Net at:

Seth was, in fact, the sole source for the material which they used in their report. He looks nothing like the colorfully described "Red", but he was Red. Similarly, he was the sole source of data for the (sadly demised) Netly News Censorware Search Engine, and was Declan's source and fact-checker when Declan reported a piece on censorware for the print version of TIME magazine, also on the Net at:

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(I should add here that Seth chose to work anonymously for many years, but recently has made the decision to have his name attached to his good works, so naming him in this nomination is not a confidentiality breach.)

I have mentioned the lawsuit against the Loudoun County Public Library, and the filing of that lawsuit itself, let alone the favorable result is, in many ways, perhaps the most tangible evidence of Seth's good works. In September 1997, in direct response to a plea for help from a member of Mainstream Loudoun, the group which would become the Plaintiff in the lawsuit, Seth decrypted X-Stop, the censorware which the Loudoun County Library was about to commence using. He and I analyzed the results, found a plethora of "bad" blocks, and Jonathan Wallace of The Ethical Spectacle (who also became a founder of CWP) wrote a devastating article, "The X-Stop Files", about the results. The article is on the Net at

Once the lawsuit was filed, we (by then, CWP had been formed) continued to feed new evidence of bad blocks to the attorneys handling the case, all of that evidence coming from Seth's repeated decrypts of updates of the X-Stop blacklist. I cannot know for certain if the lawsuit ever would have been filed in the absence of Seth's decryption of X-Stop, or if it would have been won in the absence of the continuing work, but I do know how appreciative those on the inside were of these efforts.

I have also mentioned above our WebSense report. Again, our information as to what WebSense was blocking was based on Seth's skilled programming work.

Recently, Bennett Haselton of Peacefire went public with reports on and decoders for X-Stop and I-Gear, the reports at and

Again, those reports were based on Seth's work. Just yesterday (March 11, 2000), Eddy L O Jansson and Matthew Skala released an article, "The Breaking of Cyber Patrol=AE 4", on the Net at

Their work is independent of Seth's, but it is a very good illustration of just how much work goes into decrypting censorware blacklists. This is not easy, just fooling around work. This is something into which Seth has invested hundreds, more likely thousands of hours of his time, working in the background, when he just as easily could have been using his considerable skills for more lucrative ventures.

Seth was the first to get inside of censorware, and most of what we now know about it is directly traceable to his efforts. Now that he has consented to having his name attached to his work, it is my privilege to

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nominate Seth Finkelstein for an EFF Pioneer Award.

James S. Tyre mailto:j.s.tyre[at]
[old address deleted]
Co-founder, The Censorware Project


I presume that Jim Tyre has nominated Seth again this year and that many others have also put Seth's name forward. Accordingly, it is my distinct pleasure to second and firmly to endorse Seth's nomination and to encourage the Committee to choose this year as the year for Seth to be recognized as an EFF pioneer, because this is the time that recognizing Seth will do the most good.

Respectfully Submitted,

Eric C. Grimm

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