Thomas Paine once wrote: “He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.” Paine’s truth is not idealistic handwaving, it is brutal pragmatism. Justifications for censorship, even the best-intentioned kind, have a way of expanding until they become instruments of abuse. Therefore, if we truly care about freedom of speech, it is not sufficient to defend that freedom when it is comfortable to do so — when the censors are ugly and the victim is appealing. It is necessary, sometimes, to speak up in defense of ugly victims of censorship.
I have found myself placed under that necessity in the last week. A member in good standing of the open-source community, one Beth Lynn Eicher, had sought and achieved the suppression of public speech by one Mikhail Kvaratskhelia, aka ‘mikeeeUSA’, aka serveral other aliases. When I first approached her privately on the matter, she refused to apologize or retract. In my judgment, she was committing a crime against our community’s future by setting a precedent which might one day reach to all of us.
This put me in a difficult position. I had received an explicit appeal for redress in my capacity as one of our tribal elders, and I felt the appeal was in the right and Ms. Eicher in the wrong. But I knew — for various reasons which will become very clear — that making that case would involve me in a batter and divisive wrangle. I was prepared to do it anyway, because my conscience would not permit otherwise, but I knew it was going to be hell.
Fortunately, after several days of debate among myself and some friends of mine who leapt to Ms. Eicher’s defense, Ms. Eicher proved to be cleverer than either them or me. While Ms. Eicher’s defenders were still flaming me for intransigence on the free-speech issue, she designed a solution which I consider totally appropriate, and which I actually hope will set a precedent.
Mikhail Kvaratskhelia is what constitutional lawyers sometimes call a werewolf – the most unappealing possible victim. He is a creepy, repellent, misogynistic crank, given to uttering threats of violent death against female Linux hackers, and quite possibly clinically insane. I first became aware of his existence last week when he sent a long letter of complaint to Richard Stallman, Linus, Bruce Perens, and myself asserting that his speech rights had been trampled on and linking to blog entries by Ms. Eicher and one other person. The letter was disturbing – intelligent in a feral way, but unhinged.
I was eyeball-deep in a new coding project; I read both blog posts, finding the story therein sad and troubling. Kvaratskhelia had posted level maps for a first-person-shooter game called Nexuiz on SourceForge; possibly also executable code, the accounts are unclear. The accounts concur that the maps contained violent imagery and slogans attacking women’s rights, and this creep’s ugly and hate-filled letter leaves me in no doubt that the maps were ugly and hate-filled as well.
I did not pursue the matter until RMS replied on 15 October asking whether Kvaratskhelia had made backups of the censored material. I thought this was a sensible question; it was the first one that had occurred to me, anyway. Following this, I searched the web for relevant material (I had deleted Kvaratskhelia’s letter rather quickly – my eyeballs felt soiled by it) and found Ms. Eicher’s original blog entry. I felt, at that point, the pricking of my conscience for not having responded to Kvaratskhelia’s earlier complaint immediately. I wrote Ms. Eicher an email condemning the suppression of speech and expressing my judgment that she owed Kvaratskhelia an apology for her suppressive conduct – which she refused to do.
This is not, at first blush, a situation in which the law offers much guidance. Censorship in the strictest sense is not involved, as no government force or threat of force was involved in the suppression. SourceForge was within its property rights and terms of service to delete the offensive material, and there was certainly no law barring Ms. Eicher from asking that they do so. My position was nevertheless that Ms. Eicher’s specific request for suppression of Kvaratskhelia’s public speech was, though within the law, consequentially and ethically wrong, because it set a precedent legitimizing suppression of public speech as a political tool.
Ms. Eicher, and her friends, maintained that her action was justified by the death threats that Kvaratskhelia has been uttering since 2005. Taking them at their word about the facts, I agree that those threats were gravely wrong, injurious, and probably criminal. But the material on SourceForge that was actually censored is not represented to have constituted a death threat, merely a political argument that Ms. Eicher and her friends found obnoxious. I am pretty sure I’d have found it obnoxious myself…but on this, law and ethics are both clear. Nazis threaten death to Jews, but they can march in Skokie anyway – the mere fact that one has an ideology that is crazed and bigoted and potentially violent does nothing to dissolve or abrogate one’s free-speech rights. Nor should it. The rules of engagement that protect mikeeeUSA’s right to utter controversial political speech are the same rules that protect Ms. Eicher’s; we cannot deny one without the other.
And as for violent misogyny in games – I remember what side most of the hacker community was on in the running PR and legal battles over Grand Theft Auto. I think that was the right side to be on, and any of us who would choose the side of the censor now, simply because it’s one of our people demanding suppression instead of some grandstanding redneck DA, would be at best succumbing to special pleading and at worst an outright hypocrite.
I was (and am) not happy about appearing to defend Kvaratskhelia. To judge by the letter and the reports of his past behavior, he is a vile piece of scum; if he were to threaten harm to Ms. Eicher in my presence, I would cheerfully shoot him. But the way to deal with death threats is to (a) report them to law enforcement, and (b) be prepared to defend yourself against the very likely contingency that the authorities won’t be around when you need them. It is not to seek suppression of the threatener’s public speech. By doing that, Ms. Eicher put herself in the wrong; worse, she put this odious character — at that moment, and on this issue — in the right.
For, if we deem suppressing his speech acceptable, where does it stop? Today it’s tirades against sexual equality that are supposed to accept as bad enough to warrant booting someone off a hosting site. But tomorrow, what will it be? Advocating restrictions on abortion? Denying global warming? Dissing vegetarians? Wearing fur? The precedent Ms. Eicher apparently wanted us to accept, whether she intended it or not, would have been unacceptably dangerous to liberty in general and our community in particular.
The hacker culture is more delicately dependent on the unfettered flow of creativity and conversation, more functionally threatened by the possibility of systematic censorship, than any other I can think of in human history. Thus, our need and our responsibility to defend freedom of expression — even when we find it uncomfortable, even when it’s being exercised by werewolves — becomes greater rather than less. We cannot hold ourselves to lower standards than a court interpreting the First Amendment would apply; if the Nazis can march in Skokie, we must respect mikeeeUSA’s right to make vile political arguments in our public spaces. Ms. Eicher’s blog is not a public space, but SourceForge was intentionally designed to function as one and our community uses it in that way; thus, the rules of the public square apply.
I was very concerned that Ms. Eicher’s original action not become a precedent for how we deal with trolls and nutjobs in the future. For if we censor public speech in aid of our own political positions, we forfeit the right to object when others censor our public speech in aid of theirs. There is only one place that road can end, and it’s not anywhere we want to be.
That was why I might have ended up in a very ugly, very public fight over this. But while others where flaming, Ms. Eicher was listening. And thinking, to far better effect than the flamers. Just a few few hours ago, without consulting me, she undertook to host the offending material herself. This is what I had to say when I learned of this:
Ms. Eicher, *well done*! A creative and even brilliant solution!
Hosting the creep’s stuff with a loud warning that it is vile and possiblly criminal attached to it is *exactly* the correct response! *Exactly*!
The best remedy for hate speech is not suppression of that speech but counterpropaganda that makes the hater look both vile and ridiculous. The fact that you publicly held yourself out as an offended party gives the act of turning around to host his stuff even more force as a gesture of both contempt for him and principled opposition to censorship than it would have had otherwise.
Yes, host his stuff. And, I advise, mock him mercilessly. Don’t dignify the filth on your disks with sober hatred; *laugh* at the poisonous fuckwit. Your choice makes you larger than him; grind that in mercilessly.
I can live with a community rule that if you successfully have someone’s stuff booted from a public space for vileness, custom requires you to carry it yourself. But don’t drop the ball. Honor now demands that you host it as reliably as your own content.
Now I will post about this, but instead of condemning you for setting a bad precedent, I will praise you for setting a good one. It is ethically, rhetorically, and pragmatically perfect; the only tiny cloud on my happiness is that I wasn’t imaginative enough to think of it myself.
I’ll add one point to that now. In an ironic and lovely way, Ms. Eicher’s sacrifice of her own disks and bandwidth to carry Kvaratskhelia’s misogynist crud is exactly the apology and retraction I originally hoped for — but delivered in a way that will give the creep no comfort in the end. I really could not ask for a better outcome.
Ms. Eicher has earned my respect for avoiding the harm of censorship, and my personal gratitude for navigating us both out of a collision neither of us wanted. And I hope her solution will indeed set a precedent that will enable us to never, ever advocate the suppression of public political speech, no matter how vile we find it.