Declan McCullagh on Mon, 17 Mar 97 23:51 MET

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Re: nettime: Village Voice article

My article on the "death" of cypherpunks is attached below...


Dave writes:

>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

Date: Wed, 12 Feb 1997 21:25:20 -0800 (PST)
From: Declan McCullagh <>
Subject: FC: End of cypherpunks, "A List Goes Down In Flames," from Netly

The Netly News Network

A List Goes Down In Flames
by Declan McCullagh (
February 12, 1997

       The plan for the cypherpunks mailing list was simple. It was to be
   an online gathering place, an intellectual mosh pit, dedicated to the
   free flow of ideas and personal privacy through encryption.

       Of course it caught on. From its modest beginnings connecting a
   few friends who lived in Northern California, it quickly grew into one
   of the most rowdy, volatile lists on the Net: Cypherpunks typically
   piped more than 100 messages a day into the mailboxes of nearly 2,000
   subscribers. And the list became a kind of crypto-anarchist utopia.
   Populated by pseudonymous posters with names like Black Unicorn, it
   was a corner of cyberspace where PGP signatures and digital cash were
   the norm -- and there were no rules. Then yesterday came the news: The
   list was being evicted and faced imminent shutdown.

       In an e-mail seen 'round the Net, John Gilmore, Electronic
   Frontier Foundation cofounder and list maintainer, announced that he
   was no longer willing to provide a virtual home for the cypherpunks.
   In a post entitled "Put Up or Shut Up," he described how his efforts
   to improve the list through moderation were condemned, how technical
   problems were consuming more of his time, how pranksters had tried to
   subscribe the entire U.S. Congress to the list. How this experiment in
   crypto-anarchy had failed. He gave the cypherpunks 10 days to find new

       "The last straw for me was seeing the reaction of the list to
   every attempt to improve it. It was to carp, to cut it down, to say
   you're doing everything wrong," Gilmore told me yesterday night. One
   of the first employees of Sun, Gilmore quit after eight years -- a
   millionaire more interested in pursuing ideas than dollars. But his
   experiment with the list has left him weary. "If everything I'm doing
   is wrong, I'm clearly not the right person to host the list," he said.

       "I would like to see some other structure in which the positive
   interactions on the list could continue. I'm not trying to create that
   structure anymore," he added. Instead, he would try the only true
   crypto-anarchist solution: "I'm handing it over to members to do what
   they wish with it."

       The cypherpunks first pierced the public's consciousness when
   Wired magazine splashed them across the cover of the second issue. The
   Whole Earth Review and the Village Voice followed soon after. The name
   "cypherpunk" came to be synonymous with a brash young breed of
   digerati who were intent on derailing the White House's encryption
   policies and conquering cyberspace. This was crypto with an attitude.

       Gilmore was typical of the breed. Monthly Bay Area meetings of the
   'punks were held in the offices of Cygnus, a company he started to
   provide support for the free Unix alternative, GNU.

       But the veteran cypherpunk came under heavy fire in November 1996,
   when a loudmouthed flamer flooded the list with flame bait and ad
   hominem attacks on various members. Finally, Gilmore, ironically, gave
   him the boot -- and incited an all-consuming debate over what the
   concept of censorship means in a forum devoted to opposing it. In a
   society of crypto-anarchists, who should make the rules? The mailing
   list melted down. By last month, it seemed, more messages complained
   about censorship than discussed crypto.

       Indeed, for months Gilmore seemed unable to do anything right. He
   tried moderation, which proved to be even more contentious, raising
   the question of empowering one cypherpunk to decide what was
   appropriate for others to read. One member of the group, in effect,
   would be more equal than the rest. And why would members take the time
   to write elaborate, thoughtful articles on crypto-politics if their
   treatises might not make it past the moderator's keyboard?

       After the expulsion, some of the longtime list denizens left
   angrily, joining the 700 subscribers who had departed since the
   controversy began. One of those was Tim C. May, a crusty former Intel
   engineer who prides himself as the organizer of the first cypherpunk
   meeting in September 1992. In an essay summarizing the reasons for his
   departure, he wrote: "The proper solution to bad speech is more
   speech, not censorship. Censorship just makes opponents of 'speech
   anarchy' happy -- it affirms their basic belief that censors are

       After all, May pointed out, the list ended up on Gilmore's machine only by happenstance -- it almost was housed on a
   workstation at the University of California at Berkeley. Ownership of
   the computer with the database of subscribers did not mean that
   Gilmore owned the cypherpunks. "Whatever our group once was, or still
   is, is not dependent on having a particular mailing list running on
   someone's home machine... and it cannot be claimed that any person
   'owns' the cypherpunks group," May wrote.

       The cypherpunks have responded to Gilmore's eviction notice. List
   participants generally have halted the incessant attacks on Gilmore,
   and now the discussion has turned to how to continue this experiment
   in online anarchy -- while preventing one person from ever again
   having absolute control of the List. Within hours of Gilmore's
   announcement, posters were tossing around ideas of a distributed
   network of mailing lists that would carry the cypherpunk name, and
   other 'punks likely will migrate to the more tightly controlled
   coderpunks and cryptography lists.

       But for the true believers in crypto-anarchy, only one solution is
   adequate: Usenet. "There is no 'nexus' of control, no chokepoint, no
   precedent... for halting distribution of Usenet newsgroups," Tim May
   wrote. That, in the end, is what defines a cypherpunk.


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