14 March 1997
Thanks to Dave Mandl <dmandl@panix.com>.

The Legendary Champions of Encryption Have Had It (Sort of)

Is This the End of Cypherpunks?

by Dave Mandl

The Village Voice, March 18, 1997

(c) 1997 The Village Voice

Nobody knows about the dangers of crypto-anarchy better than the crypto-anarchists. In the five years since the formation of the Cypherpunks -- an influential group dedicated to the pursuit of privacy via cryptography (the science of codes and ciphers) -- the problems of a medium regulated only by encryption and e-mail filters have been discussed endlessly. With unbreakable codes available to everyone, what if murderers or kidnappers use it to render their electronic correspondence unreadable? What's to prevent hebephrenic nuts from making reasonable discourse impossible? And in unrestricted forums like public mailing lists, how can grossly off-topic posts and idle chatter be kept to a minimum?

In the case of the Cypherpunks, two of these questions weren't rhetorical. With list membership as high as 2000, mail traffic of 100 or more messages a day, and a fuzzily defined group charter, noise was high by anyone's standards. Relatively few lunatics actively targeted the group for abuse, but those were plenty. The most recent, when he wasn't relentlessly flaming Cypherpunks list members, was building software to do it automatically. The list's normally low-profile owner, John Gilmore, who already had his hands full with heavy message traffic, decided he'd had enough. He warned the kook to knock it off and then, when he refused, removed him from the list.

That's when the trouble started. While some Cypherpunks supported Gilmore's decision as the only sensible action, many of the list's more ardent free-speech advocates cried censorship, and a number of them -- including list cofounder Tim May (who ironically had been the main target of the flames) -- left in protest. Crypto-anarchy is about dealing with just these kinds of dilemmas, the dissenters argued; anyone not wanting to hear the rantings of a list member should use mail filters or other tools to relegate them to the digital trash bin.

Meanwhile, as a compromise solution to the list's problems, member Sandy Sandfort proposed to Gilmore that he be allowed to moderate the chat. Sandfort would screen out all flames and other outright noise and ship them to a flames-only list, where those interested would still be able to read them. Gilmore agreed to give it a shot. This enraged many list members even more. Not only did they consider list moderation inherently offensive, but they resented having it proposed behind their backs and then presented to them as a fait accompli. Nevertheless, the moderation experiment went forward.

From there, things got worse. In late January, people began to notice that some messages were disappearing into thin air. Among these were messages critical of a product sold by Sandfort's employer. Some list members (including the one who'd been critical of the product) claimed that none of their posts, even on-topic ones, were making it to either list. This started a new round of accusations, many of which Sandfort either diverted to the flames list or, according to some, deleted completely, in violation of his own stated mandate as moderator. Now furious and fed up with the infighting, Gilmore announced that he was through. He was giving the list one week to find another home, and then pulling the plug. Sandfort would continue to moderate till then. On February 20, the list officially died.

Sandfort now admits that he did delete some messages -- including one that was critical of his employer's product -- but claims he acted only because they contained libellous statements, since "republishing a libel is also a libel." As for non-libellous messages, Sandfort, a lawyer, denies deleting any intentionally, but hedges: Since he was doing all the filtering manually, he says, "I'm sure I dropped some by accident."

Tim May, sticking to his anarchist principles, sees the whole issue as a clear-cut battle between "free-speech absolutists" and "control freaks" who never should have been given power over the list's content. He finds it strange that a long-time Cypherpunk like Sandfort should suddenly be so concerned about libel, given all the insults, unfounded accusations, and anonymously pilfered corporate data that have appeared on the list over the years with no complaints from anyone. But Sandfort insists, "Cypherpunk is about privacy. It's not about free speech."

With the list temporarily homeless, physical meetings have continued in the Bay Area, where a large number of Cypherpunks are based. The most recent, held in a Stanford University auditorium, was the best ever, according to May, with "a huge turnout." Three years after the group stopped being front-page news, film crews from all over still show up at meetings regularly. On the Net, the Cypherpunks' influence continues to grow, from Web-browser warnings when you attempt to transmit unencrypted data, to the increasing availability of unbreakable codes for widely used e-mail programs like Eudora.

Former list maintainer Hugh Daniel and cofounder Eric Hughes are now working on setting up a cypherpunks.org domain with its own computer to host a new, independent list. (A Usenet newsgroup has been created to tide the group over in the meantime.) It may turn out that what didn't quite kill the Cypherpunks has made them stronger.

Cypherpunks newsgroup: alt.cypherpunks
Cypherpunks mailing list archives: http://infinity.nus.sg/cypherpunks

To supplement DM's listing:

The original Cypherpunks list still receives mail at cypherpunks@toad.com and distributes incoming to three off-shoots:




There are also two previous off-shoots:



For information send an "info" request to majordomo@each.address

See Dave Mandl's VV article on anonymous remailers.