Stalked by Seth Finkelstein

This essay has been made necessary by the actions of Seth Finkelstein, who has stalked me for the past several years, harassing me at work and at home. Finkelstein is a deeply deranged nutcase, a net-loon if you will, with a serious and untreated personality disorder, who nevertheless can come off as reasonable on first contact. Finkelstein has the same personality type as John Hinckley, who stalked Jodie Foster and eventually attempted to assassinate President Reagan; I believe he is capable of violence. This website is a warning for all those who might consider associating or working with him in any fashion.

Seth has a pattern of behavior - he has stalked at least three other people that I know of - and since his obsession has not faded over the years, I've decided to write this and set the record straight. If this is too long for you, you may wish to skip to the end.

For identification purposes: I'm discussing the Seth Finkelstein who resides in Cambridge, MA and commonly uses the email addresses <sethf@mit.edu> or <sethf@sethf.com> or <sethf@infothought.org>. He's a mathematician by training, a perl programmer by trade. Any other Seth Finkelstein's out there, breathe easy.


  1. In the beginning...
  2. Summary of Seth's harassment
  3. Postscript

Let us start at the beginning.

Way back when, some people all subscribed to an email list called "fight-censorship". The discussion part of the list is dead now; some part of it lives on as Politech. Before too long, some of the people on that list noticed that they all thought censorware was a bad thing. In a remarkable feat of self-organization, they decided to get together and try to raise public awareness. In alphabetical order:

Seth Finkelstein
Bennett Haselton
Jamie McCarthy
Michael Sims
James S. Tyre
Jonathan Wallace

We worked by email - we lived in various places across the United States - and put together a report about the censoring software "Cyber Patrol". Jonathan Wallace was already paying for a commercial web-hosting account, so we put up a set of webpages at http://spectacle.org/cwp/. (Actually Jonathan had published some earlier pages about a different censoring program - he had picked up on the whole "publish a webpage" thing while the rest of us were still at the "write some email" stage.) We picked a name which was marginally better than People's Front of Judea or the Judean People's Front: The Censorware Project. We released our first report in December 1997.

Note that we (the other five of us) all knew at the time that Seth was mentally unstable. Seth harbored a deep, burning hatred of Mike Godwin (once a lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, he participated in the case that got the Communications Decency Act declared unconstitutional) and Declan McCullagh (a pro-free-speech journalist, he founded the fight-censorship list). Seth would go to great, excruciating lengths to bash either of these people: no depth was too low, no dirt was too dirty. He accused Godwin of drunkeness; he made specific accusations about both Godwin and McCullagh abusing women - Godwin he accused of sexual harassment, McCullagh of domestic abuse - apparently because these were the basest smears he could come up with (as far as I know, none of these have any factual basis). Seth also had the characteristics of the unstable loner - he never once wrote of any friends or family, only wrote about his job very rarely and in the most general terms (and never mentioned any names), etc. However, Seth was also very strongly pro-free-speech, and when you share beliefs with someone you're willing to overlook a lot of flaws. In retrospect, all the signs were there to see, the writing was on the wall, but I ignored it all.

Shortly after the first report, I sent an email with an idea that had been kicking around in my head for a while - censorware.org, a whole domain devoted to anti-censorware efforts. And anti-censorware in a serious way: detailed instructions on bypassing or disabling censoring software. I considered doing it anonymously, to avoid any repercussions such as being accused of forcing little kids to view snuff porn (these sorts of accusations were often leveled by pro-censorship activists).

As it turned out, there was no group support for doing such a site - no one wanted to take such a radical free-speech position except me. But getting a domain name and a dedicated site was still a good idea. So in Feb. 1998, I registered censorware.org for the exorbitant fee of $100 and set up a hosting account, for (I think) $50/month. Then it was on to develop the site.

As you might expect, if you've ever tried to organize a group where the organizer does not have the power to compel obedience, I ended up doing all the work on the website. We had plain HTML files for a while, then I decided that I could do some nifty stuff with Cold Fusion (a system that allows webpages to be dynamically executed) and I converted the site over to Cold Fusion pages, revamping it in the process. My girlfriend did the logos for the site. All was good.

And life went on. We tried to do a report every so often. In May 1998, Mike Godwin had an article published in Salon describing his experiences with Seth Finkelstein (and other people, myself included) online. Godwin administered a pretty good roasting, and all of our little group were a little peeved at him. Seth immediately began badgering Scott Rosenberg, Salon's editor, to allow him to write a super-flamey rebuttal article and have it published in Salon. (Seth was extremely incensed not only at being bashed, but in not being able to immediately reply to the same audience.) Seth sent to Rosenberg a cascade of five emails (really!) intimately detailing all of Godwin's assorted mistakes, lies, and downright evilness, in painful depth; then he compiled a huge long hit-list of everything he could discover that was remotely embarassing to Godwin.

We had two choices to get published in Salon: either send a letter (more likely to get published, less visible) or write an article (less likely to get published, more visible). I had a great fear of Seth sending something nasty and irrational and signing it with all of our names. Somehow - pay attention here, it's the great divide - I ended up being tasked with writing the response article. Seth was too much of a net flamer to write anything for a general circulation e-zine like Salon; his anger and frothing at the mouth showed through everything he wrote. Jamie, the other candidate, wisely bowed out.

Accepting this task, though I walked into it with eyes wide open, was a mistake. This put me into a situation where Seth's anger at Godwin could be transferred. If I failed to write a good article and have it published in Salon, Seth would be angry at me instead of Godwin for the failure. Too bad I didn't realize it at the time.

So I started writing the article. And Seth kept badgering Scott Rosenberg - apparently he wanted Rosenberg to issue some sort of "correction" to Godwin's article. Overall, I believe Seth sent at least 10-15 emails to Rosenberg (and I don't mean a conversation; Rosenberg sent maybe one response) over the next week or two. And when I wasn't fast enough at the reply piece, Seth starting badgering me too. (I was busy at the same time forcing the state of Utah to reveal records on the censoring software used in Utah schools and libraries - I didn't get any help from the group with that, either.) Eventually I finished the reply article, which was highly praised by the other members and a couple of outsiders who looked at it, but, looking critically at it, really wasn't particularly good as a piece of writing (it was informative, but not lyrical nor truly compelling). It probably wasn't up to Salon's standards, and when Seth had harassed Rosenberg continuously for several weeks... well, let's just say I wasn't surprised when Rosenberg rejected it.

Of course, that meant I was responsible for Seth being bashed in Salon and not getting a reply. Yep, not Mike Godwin, me. Seth started his bitter crusade against me on the day that Rosenberg turned down the article, and hasn't let up since.

So our little group started fracturing at that point. I was pissed at Seth because I had done a lot of work on an article that Seth had destroyed any hope of getting published. Seth now blamed me for Godwin's article in the first place. An email sent around this time by Jonathan Wallace gave the thoroughly reasonable advice that "If CWP gets pegged as an org more interested in settling scores than in fighting censorware, that's a problem." He was suggesting that we not commit to publishing one of Seth's flaming rants [sight unseen] on the censorware.org site. (We had all tried and failed to get Seth to write something non-flaming; this he was unwilling to do.) To Seth, this was a lack of support - if we weren't ready to trash the censorware.org site with some barely-related-to-censorware Godwin-bashing, then by God we were just as bad as Godwin. We were with Seth.... or we were against him.

Seth started quoting Wallace's words back at him at every opportunity - it was evidence (in Seth's eyes) of how we had let him down. Seth lingered on for a few months contributing increasingly vicious remarks about Wallace and myself, and then, in October 1998, told us that he was retiring. He also said he didn't care about his entry on the website. I took his email address of our internal list, altered his biographical entry to the effect that he had retired, and was privately relieved.

Seth's retirement actually made me moderately hopeful about the future of the group. All of the other members of the group were, you know, sane. Of course, Seth didn't go quietly - he went loudly, and bitterly, and started flaming me publicly and privately at every opportunity. Over the next six months, he sent close to 100 nasty emails to me. Occasionally, I attempted to reason with him, until February 1999, when I ceased writing to him altogether. Anything I wrote to him simply provided more proof of my evilness. The other members of the group were pretty much in awe at Seth's insanity, but were unwilling to intervene - unlike me, they had realized how dangerous Seth was without fully triggering his obsessive net-stalker mode.

Think about that for a minute. Every hour of the day - or at least every day or two - Seth was thinking about how I had done him wrong by failing to get my article published in Salon, with enough bitterness to send me an insulting email. He literally could not stop dwelling on it. The longest period with no insults from Seth was about ten days - perhaps he got busy at work, or met a girl.

In July 1999, I *plonked* Seth permanently. I set my mail program to delete mail from sethf@mit.edu without my intervention. No doubt I should have done so sooner. Seth continued to send his hate to me and the other members of the group, and to various mailing lists dealing with legal issues or censorship. Judging from various factors - watching my email program download mail and then immediately put it into the trash folder, seeing Seth's mail occasionally quoted or responded to, and so forth - Seth did not seem to flag in the slightest. His intensity of hatred kept up, perhaps even increased.

In March 2000, Jim Tyre sent to the group a revelation. He announced that Seth had played an important role in about half of the reports we had written over the years, cracking the encrypted lists of banned sites that that the programs used to determine whether a specific website was Naughty or Nice, which made writing the reports much easier. So in a nutshell, Finkelstein was not retired. Tyre had been sending Seth copies of emails that were supposed to remain private within the group, working with him behind the backs of everyone else. And now Seth and Tyre wanted to get an EFF Pioneer Award.

Seth was, of course, still writing hateful emails to me on a constant basis.

I thought about it for a day or two. I tried to put my distaste for Seth behind me. I tried to think only of whatever good things Seth had done, and not his obsessive hatred of me. I tried to think of taking the high road, and being noble, and so forth. And finally, in the end, I thought about how Seth might stop attacking me if he got the award. It's like giving ice cream to a screaming child - you know it's wrong, because you're rewarding bad behavior, but sometimes the temptation is just overpowering. Eventually I wrote a glowing recommendation of Seth for the Pioneer Awards. When I copied it to the group, I sent along with it a true anecdote which I thought expressed my feelings about the situation and the likely outcome of it.

As it turned out, Seth didn't get a Pioneer Award. EFF gave an award to "Librarians everywhere" for resisting censorware, but not Seth. This infuriated Seth. Naturally, this too was my fault, and he redoubled (again) his attacks on me.

By July 2000, I realized that Seth was still - still - writing hateful emails to me and the rest of the group on a nearly daily basis, over 20 months since his "retirement" from the group, over a year since I had responded to him. I wrote to postmaster@mit.edu, politely asking that entity to educate their user about netiquette. Bennett wrote a pretty funny response to my request. It seemed to work - after one last barrage, Seth ceased sending email directly to me. Of course, he just increased his attacks in public forums and in private email sent to others.

I'm skipping over a lot, of course. We continued to produce reports detailing how bad censoring software really is. I continued to do 100% of the web work; I paid for the website and maintained it, as well as doing much more than one-fifth of the writing and investigating necessary to produce the reports. Over time, I grew rather weary of the situation. Especially after March 2000, when it had become clear that Jim Tyre was willing and able to lie to the group for an extended period of time, my heart just wasn't in it anymore. No doubt the ability to lie to people believably is a good trait for a lawyer; it's not a good trait for producing activist reports in a small group of friends.

I'm also skipping over my involvement with Slashdot. In June 1999, during the Great Internet Boom or whatever posterity will call it, Slashdot was purchased by Andover.net. This represented a considerable financial windfall for Rob Malda and Jeff Bates, the founders of the site. As it so happened, I knew Jeff Bates because I used to play play-by-mail games with him. Jamie McCarthy and I had occasionally discussed setting up a discussion site with Slashdot's moderation system for free-speech issues - because we had seen that the mailing list format tended to degenerate into a flamey mess. Slashdot's moderation system, or so we thought, might be just the ticket to enable some signal to come out of the noise in "hot" topics such as censorship. Slashdot had released the code they were using, but only a very old version - "pre-0.3 beta" or something like that - had been posted, and I knew many changes had been made since then. The announcement of the Andover buyout spurred me to write to Jeff and ask him - would it be possible to get a current snapshot of the Slash code, to run the hypothetical free-speech website that Jamie and I were thinking about?

Jeff wrote back, and effectively trumped my request - would I be interested in doing my hypothetical site as part of Slashdot? They were looking to expand, post more stories, cover more topics, had money to hire people, and so on. As Jeff put it, "smart people are at a bloody premium in this world." Well, this solved a number of problems at once: we didn't have to worry about setting up Slash (much harder installation then than now), wouldn't have to host the site, wouldn't have to build traffic from nothing, and on top of that, there would be a small contractor's fee - we would actually get paid for working part-time, doing something we had planned to do for free (indeed, had planned to pay for doing, since hosting and everything else would be costly).

Like manna from heaven.

So naturally we accepted, and went to work part-time posting stories in the newly-launched YRO section of Slashdot. I didn't realize it at the time, since I had Seth plonked, but Seth became extremely bitter/jealous about this. Apparently he believed that I had somehow taken credit for his work and parleyed it into undeserved fame and fortune. He still continues today in the erroneous belief that all my volunteer work on censorware.org had something to do with my employment at Slashdot.

But back to the main thread. After reading yet another bitter attack on me in a public forum (Seth was still stirred up from not winning the Pioneer Award), I decided in a fit of pique that it was time to take Seth up on his claim of so long ago, and in August 2000 I deleted him from the censorware.org biographies. He had participated constructively in the group for perhaps six months (November 1997 to May 14, 1998), and had participated destructively for over two years since that time; enough was enough. I knew that doing so was striking at Seth's most vulnerable point, his desire for public recognition (despite his claims above).

Seth was running a script against the website daily to see if anything had changed to his detriment. That's obsessive, of course, but he does it to every website that he's interested in monitoring - the people on his list of foes. So that night, he noted that his biographical entry had changed, and he sent a quick email to Jim Tyre, his only remaining defender in the group, and Tyre obligingly chastised me. 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. I suggested to the group that a reasonable solution to our differences might be to maintain the site, in an archival status, for a long period of time - I no longer wished to update it or work on it, but I thought it should be kept active, slowly turning into a ghost site.

The group rejected this. 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.

But again, I'm neglecting Slashdot. In March 2000, Slashdot offered Jamie a job as a programmer. In September 2000, they offered me a full-time job (they had actually sent me a feeler around March as well, but I had shrugged it off.) Being somewhat bored with my current job at the Department of Energy, I accepted. Again, Seth took this as a personal affront of some sort. Compare the timing with the above, and you'll see that Seth was getting cranked up over censorware.org at just the same time as I was changing careers.

It became Seth's goal in life to get me fired from Slashdot.

He kicked up his harassment efforts. He emailed everyone at Slashdot whose email address he could discover, detailing my awfulness and demanding that I be fired post-haste. My immediate superiors received dozens or hundreds of emails from him. He started running a script against Slashdot, a computer program which automatically posted comments to each story that bashed me and promoted his personal website with its condemnatory and semi-truthful essay about the demise of the censorware project. He spammed Slashdot.

Seth did exactly what he had railed against for so many years: he purposefully and with careful aforethought lowered the signal to noise ratio of every discussion on the site to promote his agenda.

Probably most employers would have fired me. Not due to the content of Seth's charges, but merely because of the harassment generated by him - it would be easier, as a profit-making entity, to find another employee with fewer stalkers. It is no exaggeration to say that Seth's harassment of my employer almost got me fired.

The harassment continued. In early January 2001, I was threatened by another netkook, Laurence Godfrey, on the cyber-rights-uk mailing list, devoted to cyber-liberties issues in the UK. Godfrey is a well-known netkook in the UK, and he has used the UK legal system, which is very friendly to libel litigants, to successfully quash any criticism of himself. Jim Tyre, who was also subscribed to the list cyber-rights-uk list (though Seth was not), forwarded Godfrey's public threats to Seth (Tyre is very "helpful" at such things), which activated Seth's enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend stalking mode. Seth immediately subscribed to the listserv and demanded that people fill him in on the Sims-bashing dirt that he had just missed, and then proceeded to taunt Godfrey, hoping he would sue myself and my employer. Nothing came of it - Godfrey correctly realized that I had committed no libel under the United States' libel laws, and that attempting to hold my employer responsible would be fruitless. Seth was rather disappointed.

In March 2001, Seth actually won his coveted Pioneer Award. Although the EFF staff denies that giving Seth the award was due in any way to Seth's long-standing harassment campaign against EFF (he had some old grudges dating from when Mike Godwin worked there, and badgered EFF until the current EFF director issued him some sort of institutional apology for whatever the previous EFF management had allegedly done), the award did have the effect of toning down Seth's attacks on the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which can't have been unwelcome. In July 2001 (why so late? I don't know) the New York Times published a short piece about the Pioneer Awards and Seth. The reporter emailed me, asking me if she could interview me for the piece, and I replied that I would be willing to comment, and she never got back to me. In general, for laudatory/award/fluff stories, one would contact the recipient's co-workers to have them talk about the recipient's good deeds. The reporter was apparently unable to find anyone willing to praise Seth or talk about his good deeds - the story as published includes no quotes or mentions from anyone other than Seth. He was the sole source for the piece.

At the conference in March where the Pioneer Award was given out, Mike Godwin sat down with Seth to try and work out some of the issues between the two of them. Here is Godwin's account of their meeting. (Also note that in the email prior to that, quoted, Liza Kessler (yet another free-speech attorney) admitted that she was afraid of triggering Seth too (she's referring to yet another Seth flamewar on an email list devoted to intellectual freedom issues in libraries). I'm probably committing a netiquette violation by posting this. Sorry, Mike, Liza, but I hope you understand my reasons.

Sometime near the middle of 2001, Seth adopted the title "Former Chief Programmer, Censorware Project". Nobody else has ever referred to him by this title, but if it makes him happy, who am I to object?

There are other incidents here and there. But this is getting rather long, and I assume the point has been made by now.


So, it's March 2002 as I write this. No doubt I've forgotten some Seth-incidents - they tend to blur together after a while. I believe Seth's relationship with the other members of the project is best summarized by this quote:

"<jamie> The rest of us have either been ignoring him, or trying to placate him in the hopes that he will not go postal with a massive campaign to discredit ALL of us (including you BTW)." -- Jamie McCarthy describes Seth Finkelstein to me

Actually there are many emails saying almost exactly the same thing; that sentiment has driven the actions of most of the group ever since Seth's flameout and "retirement". Unfortunately, Seth was already "going postal" on me, so for me it was a little bit too late.

Seth continues to write to my supervisors from time to time, demanding that I be fired. He continues to use a script to robo-post advertisements for his website from time to time. It's a cyclical thing - you can tell whenever something has upset him, because his activities come in waves. When he sees this essay, it will undoubtedly spur a new round of attacks on me. It's likely that he'll continue to do this forever - after all, he still also obsesses about Mike Godwin, and Declan McCullagh, whose "offenses" in Seth's eyes considerably pre-date mine. (Seth has also stalked free-speech lawyer Eric Grimm for a time, after Grimm was unwise enough to respond rudely to Seth on the cyberia-l mailing list.) Each of Seth's stalkings has followed roughly the same pattern: someone aids Seth in some way, Seth turns paranoid, the other person rejects Seth in some real or imagined fashion, and Seth then goes ballistic. Seth starts by going through his archives of every email he's ever sent or received, looking for anything that could be embarassing to the target; Seth follows it up with web and Usenet searches looking for anyone else who might be an enemy of Seth's new target (an enemy of Seth's enemy is Seth's friend) and making contact with those new allies in Seth's new war; Seth tries to identify anywhere his new target may be vulnerable, typically the person's employer; and Seth then wages war in all public forums and repeatedly contacts the target's employer demanding that the person be fired.

This is the pattern he followed with Godwin, McCullagh, and now Sims (and to a lesser extent, Grimm). If you're considering working or associating with Seth Finkelstein in any fashion, whether it be regular employment or activism of some sort, you would be wise to take heed.

This site will remain live until at least one year after Seth ceases his stalking of me, and then I'll consider taking it down (although if Seth is still stalking others, it may be a public service to leave it up). So if you're reading this in 2005 or 2010, know that Seth is still after me. I might update it from time to time.

--
Michael Sims
2002-03-21

Postscript, 2002-04-05 - A couple of notes and updates. It took one day from the time that I posted this (with no public announcement) until Seth spidered it and downloaded every file linked here for his archives. O-B-S-E-S-S-I-V-E. Mike Godwin responded that he had no problem with my quoting his email, above. Some sample email I've received so far:

Michael,

I've just been reading the story on your site regarding Seth Finkelstein's abuse. So, I fired off an email to him querying this.

Man, that guy is one crazy fucker! No less than six hate-filled emails arrived in my inbox following that.

Anyway, I just wanted to say I feel really sorry for you having to put up with this nutcase. Hope you get it sorted one day.

Seth has never been one to send a single email where five will do. Good to know he hasn't changed.

Seth's general response to this has been to re-double, again, his attempts to harass me at work. (Rob Malda, the person Seth is writing to, is also known as CmdrTaco - my boss at Slashdot.) Thanks for confessing to harassing my employer, Seth. For what it's worth, I believe most of the people Seth is writing to: CmdrTaco, Hemos, Jamie McCarthy, etc., all have him *plonked*. It's funny, in a way. But also sad.

Postscript, 2002-05-30 - David Burt forwarded me this email a couple of days ago. It should be noted that Burt is a pro-censorship campaigner, who now works for N2H2, maker of censoring software. Although normally Burt might be considered an untrustworthy source, I knew from several other sources that Seth was recently attempting to get an evaluation copy of N2H2's software, and thus believe the email linked below is extremely likely to be legitimate. I hope their company (and all such) goes out of business, preferably in an implosion reminiscent of Enron. Nevertheless, I don't think they should be harassed - there are better ways to oppose the spread of censoring software. Seth doesn't agree.

Postscript, 2005 - Seth Finkelstein is still stalking me and harassing my employer.