Censorship and Mailing Lists

Danny Yee (danny@STAFF.CS.SU.OZ.AU)
Mon, 13 Mar 1995 13:03:04 +1000

Lots of people are decrying censorship and complaining about Hugh's
action in removing Robert Johnson. William Bangs seems to think that
censorship on the Internet is somehow worse than censorship elsewhere,
but he's got it all back to front. The Internet is special for the
very pragmatic reason that **censorship is effectively impossible**
there, not because of any special mystique associated with it.

As I've already explained, what Hugh did is *not* censorship.
Robert Johnson is still free to send mail to those people on the
list who want it: you can either subscribe to his new list, or ask
him to mail you privately. Whether what Hugh did is desirable or
not is another matter (I might even have voted "No" if he'd called
for a vote), but in practise it's impossible to run a large mailing
list and keep everyone happy.

The key to understanding who has what rights here is a careful
consideration of what exactly constitutes a mailing list.
The list software is freeware, so no one owns that; the particular
instantiation of it which runs anthro-l is, presumably, running
on a computer belonging to Buffalo University. The address
anthro-l@UBVM.CC.BUFFALO.EDU also belongs to Buffalo University
(they control the DNS authority record for buffalo.edu, and, thus
the MX record for UBVM.CC.BUFFALO.EDU). Those who think that,
rather than interfere with anyone's free speech, the onus should be
on Hugh to start a new list if he's not happy with Robert Johnson,
should realise that, even if they wanted to, it is NOT possible for
Buffalo University to relinquish control of their DNS authority record
without making their local network unmanageable.

By long-standing precedent, it is not acceptable for anyone to send
email to an address when its owner doesn't want it. Whether the
owner then resends it to 700 other people is their business.
(Provided they do so with the consent of the people they send it
to, of course, but, as pointed out above, we implictly gave Hugh
permission to relay to us mail sent to anthro-l@UBVM.CC.BUFFALO.EDU
when we subscribed to anthro-l.) Hugh is providing a service; he is
under no obligation to continue to do so, or to provide it to everyone.
As Anita Cohen-Williams has mentioned, running a mailing list is not
fun; it's a lot of work.

John McCreery hits it on the head when he writes:
> A bartender who imposes too many rules and too much of a stickler when it
> comes to enforcing the rules soon finds his customers going elsewhere. The
> same is true of the bartender who ignores the boor who comes in every night
> and trashes the place.

This bring us back to what anthro-l *really* is -- the people who
participate in it. Neither Hugh nor Robert nor anyone else has any
power over that group. If the existing list instantiation disappeared
today (terrorists nuke Buffalo University?), I'd have a replacement
working within days, and I wouldn't be surprised if someone beat me
to it. Similarly if Hugh alienated a large proportion of the members
on the list, they would simply leave. Hugh and Buffalo Uni may own
the "material culture" of the list (actually, I'm sitting on some of
it myself), but the "goodwill" is quite transferable.

I do feel that some kind of formal framework should exist for removing
people from the list, however, if only so poor Hugh doesn't have
to take the responsibility on himself. How about a straightforward
vote on the matter? Following a petition signed by 10 (?) members
requesting that a person Y be evicted, a formal vote be carried out
(not on the list -- a separate address could easily be set up for votes
to be submitted to, and we could probably get one of the volunteers who
run the USENET newsgroup votes to provide an impartial counter), and if
some criterion is met (at least 10% of the list membership votes and
a 2/3 majority of votes are for eviction?) then the eviction happens.
A list of votes could be posted to the list to make sure everything
was above-board.

Of course Hugh would have to retain the right to summarily block
people who put him at legal risk by defaming others, or who were
making the list unworkable by dumping 100 pieces of advertising a

Danny Yee.