What Happened To The Censorware Project (censorware.org)

by Seth Finkelstein, former chief programmer of Censorware Project

[An updated version of this essay is available at http://sethf.com/freespeech/censorware/essays/censorwareorg.php ]

"Reporters come in as newspaper men, trained to get the news and eager to get it; they end as tinhorn statesmen, full of dark secrets and unable to write the truth if they tried."

-- H.L. Mencken


This essay describes what happened to the former website for the Censorware Project (censorware.org), an activist organization which produced much work exposing the flaws of censorware (programs euphemistically called "filters"). In brief, the site was taken down for one week in August 2000, put back, then was taken down again on November 4 2000. As of this publication (February 2001), the second removal has lasted three months, and appears permanent. Both times, the shut-downs were done deliberately by the webmaster, Michael Sims. This is an account of the why and wherefore.

Disclaimer: The author is a biased, partial, partisan, interested party to the events chronicled below.


The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. "Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?" he asked.

"Begin at the beginning", the King said gravely, "and go on till you come to the end: then stop."

-- Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Unfortunately, I can't begin at the beginning, only very near the end. The story of the formation, tensions, and then public meltdown, of Censorware Project would fill a book (plus an updated edition concerning the aftermath and issues about partial re-grouping). This article is a cautionary tale about what happened to the censorware.org website, and some associated personal memoirs.

Censorware is software designed and optimized for use by an authority to prevent another person from sending or receiving information. It's more than an essay in itself to discuss the politics of censorware, the various government mandates and laws involving it, and the free-speech opposition to it. For background on these topics, see websites as such as Peacefire or The Net Censorship Dilemma (or Seth Finkelstein's Anticensorware Investigations)

The Censorware Project was formed by a group of writers, lawyers, and activists in late 1997. The coFounders were Seth Finkelstein (the writer of this essay), Bennett Haselton, Jamie McCarthy, Michael Sims, James Tyre, and Jonathan Wallace. The goal was to expose information about censorware products. I donated my skills as a senior-level programmer. Michael Sims became the webmaster.

We produced a great amount of important free-speech material. But analyzing censorware is hard, unrewarding, legally risky work. Programmers have been sued for reverse-engineering the secret blacklists. To compress a year's worth of story down to a few sentences, there came a time I received legal advice that I was heading for a lawsuit. I was the person with my fingers on the server. There was a deep conflict between what Censorware Project could do which would be good for me, as a programmer at risk of being sued, and what would be good for e.g. Michael Sims, in terms of promoting his nascent career as a journalist. The fact that I'm writing this essay should tell you what was the outcome of that conflict.

I'm Grand Poohbah or I'll Shoot This Site!

"Buy This Magazine or We'll Shoot This Dog!"

-- famous National Lampoon cover (January 1973)

On Wednesday, August 30 2000, the webmaster for Censorware Project, Michael Sims removed the contents of censorware.org for the first time. All reports, essays, and other information were taken down from the website. The front page was replaced with a message about "Closed for remodeling". That was false. There was no remodeling planned. Michael Sims had taken down the website as a means of retaliation (concurrence: Jonathan Wallace's account: "... Mike Sims' reaction to a perceived slight was to take the site down for a week, ..."). The perceived slight (and retaliation) was against James Tyre, a Censorware Project member who had written to Michael Sims the following message, protesting one of his (Sims) unilateral actions as Censorware Project webmaster:

Date: Fri, 04 Aug 2000 00:41:08 -0700
To: cwp <cwp@censorware.org>
From: "James S. Tyre" <jstyre[at-sign]jstyre.com>
Subject: The CWP Unperson

"[Finkelstein], however, was already an unperson He did not exist: he had never existed." -- 1984

Michael, the "why" does not matter, but I just happened to look at http://censorware.org/admin/, and was surprised and saddened to see that you have removed any reference to Seth. I hardly ever check that page, so I do not know how long ago this was, but I just saw it.

You and he have become enemies, and there is nothing which I can do about that, apparently. But you can not deny the contributions he made, that CWP likely never would have existed but for him.

He had been listed as a former member, though I do not recall the exact language. Unpersoning him is just wrong.

Please reconsider.

James S. Tyre                       mailto:jstyre[at-sign]jstyre.com
[old address deleted]
Given the prospect of having this message becoming known, Michael Sims' reaction was not to reconsider, but to shut down the censorware.org website. That sounds unbelievable. But it's true.

Hostage Sites and No Deals With A Terrorist

When you have shot and killed a man you have in some measure clarified your attitude toward him. You have given a definite answer to a definite problem. For better or worse you have acted decisively. In a way, the next move is up to him.

-- R. A. Lafferty

The first take-down of censorware.org by Michael Sims was a source of much consternation. Nobody else had thought to mirror the site, because he was taking care of it. There was serious concern that he might permanently destroy all the material.

Ironically, it turned out that the person who had the most complete copy of the content was me. On August 21, I had made a copy of all the text on the website, simply as a precaution to check against further shenanigans (I still regret not making a full mirror, but at the time it didn't seem necessary).

While Michael Sims made no explicit demands, and ignored almost every attempt to contact him, it's my own view that the message was utterly clear. If we ever wanted to see the Censorware Project website alive again, then: Beg! Agree, in Jonathan Wallace's later phrasing, "the group was exclusively his". Don't argue. Otherwise, the retaliation will be anything from having one's name stricken, to the whole website being destroyed.

Days went by. People started to notice that links to the material on the Censorware Project website were broken, and asking what had happened. One of the main censorware-advocates was curious. Michael Sims continued to ignore everything. It seemed like everyone involved was being drawn into a circus of "Day x, of the Censorware Project website held hostage". And personally, I was deeply worried about the prospect of ending up as a bargaining chip in a bizarre negotiation with the terrorist.

I thought the longer this went on, the worse it would become. Pressure would build, and I feared the politics involved. And bluntly, I was extremely tired of being jerked-around by Michael Sims. I didn't want to play his game.

On Tuesday-Wednesday night September 5-6 2000, I had a many hours-long discussion with James Tyre (see above). I intended to put up a partial mirror of the censorware.org material on my own personal website (http://sethf.com/) He did not bless it, but did not forbid it either. That was good enough for me.

Then I got to stay up the rest of that night actually constructing the partial mirror. I wanted to get it done and up as quickly as possible. I essentially had only the plain-text dump from August 21 2000, not many images or html files. So it was a fairly complicated programming task to organize those files into something usable.

Wednesday morning September 6 2000, I put up my text-mirror of censorware.org. I told a few people about it, but didn't send out any major announcements (or make any extensive comments in the mirror itself). Personal note: I'm a professional programmer in my mid-30's, not a college student. I do not enjoy stress-filled all-nighters. I had my reasons for pulling that one, but it was an unpleasant experience, and I felt every hour of it.

Thursday afternoon September 7 2000, I send out a message to a few people about possibly retrieving Censorware Project website HTML pages from browser caches (as well as, ahem additional personal comments on the situation).

Mirable Dictu ("it is marvelous to relate"), on Thursday evening September 7 2000, I noticed activity on the censorware.org website, and it seemed the content was being put back online. I send mail about this. And get to spend another late night downloading the files off the website in case I don't get another chance, and comparing that mirror-copy with copies made by others. My mirror was no longer necessary, so I eventually took it down.

Michael Sims never gave an explanation as to what motivated him to restore the website in that case, and I doubt he would admit the following. But I believe that my putting up a partial mirror was the reason. That changed the dynamics of the situation. It was then no longer his game, of beg and plead with him to release the hostages, err, hosted-pages. The incentives were reversed. Suddenly, time was working against him, not for him. The more he delayed, the more my mirror would becomes the website people used. He was losing control of the situation. His best strategy then became to backpedal and attempt to salvage whatever influence he could.

I cannot prove this explanation. But it fits the timing and behavior.

The Second Time Around

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.

-- Shakespeare, Henry the Fifth Act III Scene i Line 1

After the immediate crisis eased, there followed weeks of gut-eating tension, as repeated efforts were made to get Michael Sims to yield control of the website (Jonathan Wallace's account: "I wrote him several emails requesting that he turn the domain over to Jamie [McCarthy] or Bennett [Haselton], as I felt we could no longer trust him to administer it. We also found out during that time that important email from people trying to contact us, including members of the press, was not being answered by Sims, nor being forwarded to other members").

Ironically, it seemed all my hard work with mirroring the website had only served to get Michael Sims a reprieve. My unpersoning from credit on the website was still in effect. It looked like it was in fact quite easy to deny the contributions I had made. Just do it.

The very politics I feared eventually did come to pass. On October 18 2000, it was communicated to me that despite how much those malicious action had hurt me personally, and no matter the crisis of the past month, the necessity of avoiding making public any internal disputes meant that Michael Sims would get away with all that he had done (at least for the time being).

But during October 2000, Michael Sims seemed to have been building up a resentment of the above e-mail messages from Jonathan Wallace. This appears to have culminated in the second shut-down of censorware.org .

On Saturday November 4 2000, Michael Sims removed the contents from censorware.org again. The front page was changed to read in part

I'm sorry, this site is no more. Due to demands from some of the people who contributed, in however minor a fashion, to this site, it has been taken down. At some point it may return in a much altered form. Or it may not. It probably won't be soon, so don't hold your breath.

If you are interested in volunteering to fight censorware, please contact me: jellicle@inch.com. Desirable skills include a commitment to free speech, a mature attitude and outlook, and either activism experience or computer skills.

-- Michael Sims, 2000-11-04

(Jonathan Wallace's account: "Judging from some email I received from him today, this [message] means me.")

Many people have the mistaken idea that the censorware.org website first went down on November 4 2000, because of the above public declaration on the website. But in fact, that was the second time around, which was the culmination of all the results of the first time (August 30 - September 7 2000).

Salting The Earth (not salt of the earth)

On the page currently at www.censorware.org Sims makes the following request: "If you are interested in volunteering to fight censorware, please contact me." One of the reasons I made this post was so that anyone considering working with Mike can make an informed decision.

-- Jonathan Wallace's account, conclusion

When I tell the story of censorware.org, sometimes people try to be comforting, with aphorisms such as "The arguments are so vicious because the stakes are so small". But in fact, the stakes weren't small at all, to the people involved. For myself, I certainly didn't think the risk of an expensive lawsuit was a small matter. And, in fairness, Michael Sims' desire to launch a career as a journalist was hardly a small stake to him.

At some deep level, I think the story is about the corruptions and temptations of the power of journalism. While I don't believe that Michael Sims started out with Censorware Project intending to use then discard it, at some point he seemed to come to view it as his stepping-stone. And once he had stepped to the next level, he was then willing to step-on it. I find it significant that on Monday October 2 2000, Michael Sims became a full-time journalist on a popular website ("Slashdot") That's right in the middle of the first and second take-downs of the Censorware Project website.

As a pragmatic matter, that full-time journalism position meant he could afford to trash censorware.org permanently. Of course, a few people would be very angry with him. But that number would be trivial compared to those who would get a favorable view of him from his articles. A journalist gets reputation-credit for every instance of reporting "Government evil action" or "Bureaucrat says something stupid" (and if there isn't a real story, some notorious examples have demonstrated that it's hardly a credibility problem to just fabricate one).

Sure, there's an irony here which reaches the heights of Henry Kissinger and the Nobel Peace Prize. But that's average for journalism. There's practically no downside for using people or organizations. It's the nature of the beast.

Michael Sims apparently decided to pour salt on the earth behind him, without regard to what damage he did to the civil-liberties in the process. Not even the passage of a Federal law concerning mandating censorware (December 21 2000) would change his behavior. Maybe this was his rite-of-a-passage as a journalist.


A bad beginning makes a bad ending.

-- Euripides, Aeolus, fragment32

While I've tried to support my history with as much corroborating evidence as can reasonably be found, some readers will understandably be skeptical. It's irrefutable that the domain censorware.org is controlled by Michael Sims. And the fact that the website has been shut-down since November 2000 should be easy to verify. I would hope that would suffice.

On a personal note, I hope this essay will serve to explain the basis of some of my feelings, in future battles concerning censoring the Net. Never again do I want to go through an attempted coup d'etat, as happened with Censorware Project.

Updates: A few days after this essay was published (February 1 2001), the Censorware Project, of which Michael Sims no longer is a member, came back onto the Net. The new URL is http://censorware.net

At that time Censorware Project made a public statement and request:

Why were we down? Another former member, Michael Sims, jellicle@inch.com, angry at a perceived slight from one of us, shut down www.censorware.org. Since the domain had been registered in Sims' name, there was nothing we could do except obtain a new domain, and put the site back up. Previous to flipping out on us, Sims had made a major contribution to the group, notably acting as webmaster and site designer, and obtaining logs and records pertaining to the use of the Smartfilter software from Utah via the Freedom of Information Act. Mike, now that the site is back up, we are renewing our request that you transfer us the censorware.org domain. You're not using it for anything, and it will continue to confuse people and divert traffic away from this, the rightful Censorware Project site.

Even with the new site, it was impossible to change a huge number of links in print, list archives, or many articles.

Further updates can be found in the version of this essay available at http://sethf.com/freespeech/censorware/essays/censorwareorg.php