Navigation: Return to: Seth Finkelstein - EFF 2001 Pioneer Award or Anticensorware Investigations
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]mit.edu
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:
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:
(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
http://www.peacefire.org/censorware/X_Stop/xsdecode/ and http://www.peacefire.org/censorware/I_Gear/igdecode/
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 nominate Seth Finkelstein for an EFF Pioneer Award.
James S. Tyre mailto:j.s.tyre[at]cyberpass.net
[old address deleted]
Co-founder, The Censorware Project
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