Michael Sims, Domain Hijacking and Moral Equivalency

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

How would you feel if your webmaster maliciously took your web-site offline, then, when you demanded its return, put up a site attacking your company at your old URL? It happened to a group I was involved in, the Censorware Project, currently at http://www.censorware.net. The purpose of this essay is to put the behavior on record, and to give you some impressions and inferences about it.

The Censorware Project was originally an informal collective of six people who collaborated online to fight censorware: Seth Finkelstein, Bennett Haselton, Jamie McCarthy, Mike Sims, Jim Tyre and myself. Several of us had never met or even spoken on the phone, yet for some time -- around two years as I recall -- we had a remarkably easy collaboration. There was no funding, no hierarchy, no titles, not even project managers. Someone would suggest a project and take the responsibility for a part of it, others would sign up for other elements, and proceeding this way we got a remarkable amount of work done, including reports on X-Stop, Cyberpatrol, Bess and other censorware products.

Even though two of us were attorneys -- Jim and myself -- we never incorporated the group or wrote a charter or any contracts among ourselves. Mike Sims was obliging enough to register the domain, just as other members paid for press releases and the other incidental expenses which came along. Mike also served as webmaster of the censorware.org site and did substantial work for the group, including writing contributions to several of the reports and lead authorship of at least one. Seth was the source of our decrypted censorware blacklists and managed many technical tasks, but later felt he had to leave the group because of the increasing prospects of a lawsuit, particularly under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). After Seth left the group, the remaining five continued.

Robert Frost said that "nothing gold can stay," and the Censorware Project was no exception. Over the summer of 2000, Mike Sims' reaction to a perceived slight from Jim Tyre was to take the site down for a week. He sent us mail at the time saying something like "The Censorware Project is now closed." I replied to him that, given that the group was a collective and we all had an interest in its work product, the domain, and the goodwill it had achieved, the decision was not his to make. Sims did not reply.

After Seth created a partial, text, mirror, Mike put the site back up a week later without explaining, let alone apologizing for, his actions. Given his continuing failure to answer any email from me (and I think from others) and the overall signs that Sims thought the group was exclusively his, I wrote him several emails requesting that he turn the domain over to Jamie or Bennett, 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.

I ultimately became exasperated that my name was listed as a principal on what had now become a "rogue" site I had no control over. Over about a five week period, I wrote Sims several more emails asking him to delete my name from the site if he wasn't going to transfer the domain. Again, I received no reply.

In November 2000, Sims took the Censorware Project site offline again, with a message saying "Due to demands from some of the people who contributed, in however minor a fashion, to this site, it has been taken down." Judging from some email I received from him at the time, this meant me.

Its a sad thing, both because we got some good work done and because some of the other members of the group were eager to continue and in fact have continued working, while deprived then of the Censorware Project site, name, email aliases and public recognition. Within a few months after, we relaunched the site, with the original content, at http://www.censorware.net. We only had the content available because Seth Finkelstein had mirrored it -- the rest of us trusted Mike and therefore had not maintained an archive out of his control.

But all the hundreds or thousands of links Censorware Project had build-up over the years still pointed to the old site. In some cases, it was impossible to fix them, since they were from mailing-list archives, old web news pages, in print, or webmasters didn't want to be to be bothered with edits. And anyone who tried to get in touch with us by sending mail to the previous contact address would have their message trashed by Sims.

In 2002, amidst the publicity of a major trial against a Federal censorware law ("CIPA"), Sims made further changes to the censorware.org site. He expanded it with an essay accusing various other members of the project, principally Seth, of bad behavior. Remarkably, in his chronology of events, he does not deny nor even try to explain his take-down of the domain of a busy activist group which did not at all consent to being robbed of its domain:

... A few weeks later, the last shreds flew apart in a couple of bitter emails back and forth, and the website came down. I was asked nicely by Jamie McCarthy to restore the site. Reconsidering my hasty actions, I did so.

... It was conveyed to me that Tyre and Seth were pleased that I had given in to Jamie's request and restored the site, because that meant that Seth could spider (use an automated tool to download every webpage) all the content off of the site in preparation for putting it up elsewhere. That is to say, what I thought was a sincere and honest request from Jamie was actually a sort of trojan horse - made under a dishonest pretense.

That was the last straw. At the beginning of November, the site came down, for good.

Michael has now set things up so that every pointer to former censorware.org content leads to his attacks. What this means is that hundreds or thousands of links which were put up elsewhere to Censorware Project content during our hey-day now, when followed, lead to Michael's denunciation of the group. Try the experiment -- invent a URL starting with censorware.org, such as http://censorware.org/DomainHijackedByMichaelSims/index.html and you will get to Michael's rant.

Although we made some attempt to contact people maintaining pages that linked to us, and ask them to redirect the link to the new www.censorware.net, we could not contact all of them, and some never made the change. My own Ethical Spectacle site had scores of links to Censorware.org -- and every time I thought I had changed them all, I would find a few more.

In short, this is a colossal and continuing act of malice by our former webmaster, Michael Sims. It's not even ambiguous -- you can go and read Mike's essay at censorware.org and confirm that he admits he did it.

Astonishingly, there were no consequences to Michael, as far as I know, for taking down the Censorware Project content and redirecting its substantial web traffic, first to a page which said the group no longer existed, and now to his rant against its members. We had some internal discussions about suing him to get the domain back. I thought there might be some merit in it and that we might be able to prove common law collective ownership of the domain by establishing our mutual contributions of work and money to create the content which was published on the site. However, another lawyer, much more knowledgeable about these things than I am, believed that the fact that Michael had been allowed by us to register the domain in his own name would be definitive and that we would lose.

The Censorware Project had been invited to participate in a mailing list of free speech organizations known as IFEA-Plan. After Michael took down Censorware.org, several of us requested that he be removed from IFEA-Plan because he had so badly violated our confidence. (His current rant on the site reveals a number of confidential communications he received over the years.) The list-master declined to delete him and we got a number of "We don't want to get in the middle of this" type messages from various other participants.

I was naively astonished by these. If the ACLU's webmaster had trashed the organization's site, I think everyone would pretty well recognize he was a Bad Character and Not To Be Trusted. As much more minor players, despite the significant contributions we had made in revealing what censorware actually blocked, no-one could be bothered to take a stand for us. There was nothing to be gained.

Another thing I learned from the experience is the pretty obvious lesson that it is ultimately hard to decide whom to trust when relationships are based on email and lack the significant visual cues we usually use in making trust-related determinations. However, I had met Mike in person twice, while there are other members of the Censorware Project I have never laid eyes upon.

Also, even in the most collegial, relaxed and rewarding collaborations, its good to have a written contract -- exactly the advice I used to give law clients but that none of us thought to adopt to protect ourselves against the eventuality of a rogue member.