Interview - Seth Finkelstein

I/V: Seth Finkelstein, Consulting Programmer, Anti Censorware Investigations: 5th June 2003

In keeping with Media Man Australia's tradition of tackling any subject, we explore the world of anti censorware, civil liberties and other issues relating to censorship. This interview was completed one day after the celebrated, America's day, the 4th of July.

Seth Finkelstein notes: Thanks. Please note I'm speaking only for myself, and am no longer a member of Censorware Project, nor am I presently working with Peacefire/Bennett Haselton.

What are your aims and objectives?

My goal was simply to do what I could, so as to move the evolution of the Internet towards "free" rather than "censored". I was an Internet user starting from back in the *80's*. Not *90's*, but *80's*, since I was at MIT, and had net access from very early on. I wanted to preserve the grand openness of the Net I knew, rather than see it become an instrument of government and corporate control.

What's your background?

Two degrees from MIT, BS Physics 1985 and BS Mathematics 1985. (yes, I really do have two degrees, physics and mathematics, from MIT, feel free to check, sometimes people don't believe me). Then I went into computer programming for a living, and have been a consulting programmer as a profession. Lifelong interest in civil-liberties, culminating in winning a 2001 Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award.

When, why and how did sex go mainstream?

To be precise, sex is not going mainstream. Sex has always been mainstream (old joke: "Celibacy is hereditary. If your parents didn't have sex, the chances are you won't have sex."). It is *knowledge* which is becoming more mainstream. And this necessarily includes knowledge of sex, as that's a topic of interest to virtually all of the population. Some people think control of information is breaking down and that's good. Other people think it's bad, and want to reimplement it. But we are definitely seeing that control *changing*. And that means the strictures of the past are being broken, with perhaps new ones attempting to be put in place. And this applies to any common interest of humanity, which again leads back to sex.

When, why and how did porn go mainstream?

If you want to think clearly, don't start with "porn" first. Rather, ask "How does this affect, in general, what interests people?", and then consider particular cases. That is, if communication is becoming cheaper, and society more open, it is not difficult to see there will be more communication about sexuality. And not all of it will be artistic and refined. Again, I want to stress this general principle - a rise in support groups for people with rare diseases, and support groups for people with rare fetishes, are the same phenomena. A greater ability to trade videos of common interest applies (in general) no matter what the subject matter of those videos.

Is society "to blame"?

There seems to be no society without some interest in sexual material overall. The level of taboo definitely varies and seems to affect particular forms of expression. Compare Sweden or Germany with Saudi Arabia or China. But a baseline interest seems innate (see joke above). Think of it like language. The society in which you live, and particulars of upbringing, determines the language you speak and how well you speak it. But the language process itself is deeply rooted in how the brain thinks.

Who are your biggest supports and detractors?

Biggest supporters: Some civil-libertarians. Librarians. Civil-liberties groups which are uncompromising over fighting censorship, such as the current Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF, ), (no connection) Electronic Frontier Australia (EFA, ), and the American Library Association (ALA, ). The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU, ) has also now been supportive on the topic, although they work very much with their own people.

Biggest detractors: Censorware companies, of course. Religious conservatives. Some civil-libertarians who believe they can cut a deal and buy-off the censors. "Corporate liberties" groups who are interested in privatizing government censorship. Contrary to myth, honest-to-god pornographers are completely uninterested in opposing censorware. They're in business to make money, and they'll sign-up with any blacklisting or "classification" system which still allows them to sell their wares to a profitable clientele (which is not children!). The marginalization of anyone else is not of concern to them.

Local color: Due to Australia's experience with "classification", for many years, Australian civil-libertarians (e.g. again, Electronic Frontiers Australia), was more supportive of me than many civil-liberties organizations in America! I'd joke about being a prophet without honor in my own country.

How has the Internet helped and hindered you and your activities?

The Internet has enabled me to receive support from people around the world (as I just noted, Electronic Frontiers Australia). I regularly e-mail with lawyers on the other side of the country from me. By the same token, (see how these are connected), I also regularly get attacked from people around the world, such as censorware company employees on the other side of the country from me.

What do you and your organisation / colleagues celebrate on the 4th of July?

Freedom is precious. No books you can't read, nothing you can't say. Most of the world does not have this good fortune.

Has the meaning of the 4th of July changed for you over the years?

I suppose the more history I learn, the more I think that civilization is very fragile, a thin and easily broken arrangement.

What is a very good and very bad example of internet filtering going terribly wrong?

Note: Censorware is not "filtering". Censorware is about controlling what people are allowed to read. Good example: Privacy, anonymity, language translation sites, and so on, need to be banned, because they represent escapes from the necessary control of censorware. I'm trying to get this understood. See

Bad example: "Breast cancer". It was a good example once. But by now, it's become so infamous, censorware companies have special-cased the word "cancer" in their spidering.

How many images of sexy and / or porn, do advertisers attempt to bombard the general public with each day, and how has the internet made their job much easier?

Regarding numbers, I have no idea. I'd say the Internet has made advertiser's job easier, since it provides a greater ability to tailor advertising to more interested audiences.

Is online dating a serious threat, given that online dating is "shaded" with sex, sometimes on sex and porn websites? How much of a problem is online dating in US (as far as attacks, violence, criminals going online for their next prey etc)?

You can't be serious, compared to the single's bar scene, or raves, or any late-night big-city environment. People engaging in online-dating are almost always (then) SOBER people meeting other (then) SOBER people. And even if they aren't, no physical harm comes of it (I'm reminded of a parody article "Drunk driving on the Information Superhighway, which proposed that nobody should be allowed online if they've been drinking too much). I've never heard an announcement. "Take the key...board. Friends don't let friends write drunk".

Who are the "bad guys" in the sex trade?

Anyone who forces themselves on an uninterested or unconsenting viewer (particularly mousetrap sites and pop-ups). Anyone who rips-off employees or scams potential customers.

Who are the "good guys" in the sex trade?

People who provide fair dealing for their customers and workers, with honest, legal, merchandise.

Is MSN Hotmail and Yahoo! doing enough to stamp out unsolicited e-mails (spam) containing sex adverts and other offensive material?

I haven't studied this in particular, so I can't say.

Why are some priests (and people masquerading as priests), attracted to the church?

Authority, sexuality, repression, make for a very complex mixture.

What is the estimated amount of sex crimes that have been committed in churches over the years?

I haven't studied the matter. Though it's a sensational topic, my guess is that it's in fact relatively low, simply on the basis that the opportunity is proportionally rare.

Hmm, I just did a Google search, here's some data: Overall, it gives "Schools, Churches" as 11.6%. The overwhelming location is "Residences, Apts" at (no joke) "69.0%". This fits well with idea that the proportion is relative to opportunity.

Hope this is helpful and informative.


Editors note: A complicated and interesting subject, to say the least. Media Man Australia so dam pleased that we still have freedom on speech in Australia, or should that be, freedom of internet!


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