War of the Cancelbots by Eric Goldman

War of the Cancelbots!

by Eric Schlachter, Esq.


With the storage of USENET archives, our public activities become a matter of public records.  For example, through DejaNews, anyone interested in my public postings can conveniently read all my posts and develop a “profile” of who I am based on what I say and where I say it.  If you will, our online postings create a textual avatar.

Privacy wonks will immediately decry the implications of such information being readily available.  I, on the other hand, am a little more concerned about what might happen if my profile were somehow distorted or manipulated.  What if pieces of my profile were edited out, so that people looking to develop a profile of me got a skewed or altered viewpoint?

The reality is that the technology exists today to affect a person’s digital profile–cancelbots.  According to the news.admin.net-abuse FAQ, a cancelbot is a program that users can use to cancel the posting of articles to USENET newsgroups.  The cancelbot works by forging the identity of the original poster of the article; therefore, the cancel message sent to recipients of USENET feeds will appear to have been issued from the initial poster.

As the FAQ points out, the name “cancelbot” (or, more accurately, the “bot” part of the word) is a misnomer, as the process of forging the cancellation messages is not automated.  Rather, the process must be initiated by a person, and its operation is sufficiently complex as to be unattainable by neophytes.  However, as discussed below, there is no reason why the process needs to be manual.  With the advent of smart agents, the ability to release cancelbots will presumably be attainable to any interested parties.

Cancelbots first came to the attention of the public in a widely publicized incident in 1993.  A microbiology professor by the name of Richard DePew grew tired of anonymous postings on sci.-hierarchy USENET newsgroups.  In response, he wrote a program that automatically canceled any anonymous postings to these newsgroups.  In its 12 hour lifespan, it canceled one anonymous posting before exhibiting erratic behavior.  For his efforts, Richard DePew was “mail-bombed” and became the subject of his own newsgroup sarcastically named “alt.fan.dick-depew.”

However, cancelbots are no longer disfavored by some, primarily due to “spammers.”  Spammers are people who seek to post their articles to a vast number of newsgroups, many of which have no relationship to the content of the article.  Spamming has been long disfavored on the Internet, but in 1994, spamming reached new heights of awareness with the spamming by Arizona attorneys Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel, who posted messages regarding immigration law issues to 5,000 to 6,000 of the 9,000 newsgroups then in existence.  A firestorm of controversy about “advertising on the Net” ensued.

In response, the cancelbots were born.  In particular, one notorious cancelbot is the “CancelMoose” who, according to the net-abuse FAQ, “stepped to the fore” in mid 1994 to cancel spams of his or her own accord.  In one well-publicized event, in December 1994 Michael Wolff spammed 150 newsgroups to publicize his book “Net Chat.”  A few days later, the CancelMoose canceled all these postings, and the message was never received by USENET readers following this cancellation.

All messages posted by the CancelMoose are run through an anonymous remailer in Finland, and no one knows his or her true identity.  According to the net-abuse FAQ, the CancelMoose “has behaved altogether admirably–fair, even-handed, and quick to respond to comments and criticism, all without self-aggrandizement or martyrdom.”  In other words, the silent, benevolent censor.

The net-abuse FAQ takes great pains to portray these censorship efforts as being triggered only by quantity, not content.  In other words, cancelbots are unleashed only when spamming is taking place. There are no fixed numbers for when a message constitutes spamming, but spamming is not really the core issue at all.

Certainly, it is possible to use this technology as it was intended–in Mr. DePew’s case, to avoid noxious postings being sent anonymously, and the CancelMoose’s case, to prevent spamming.  But this technology can easily be used for less admirable purposes.

Such a use was illustrated in the recent case involving the Church of Scientology (CoS).  For those who have not been tracking the CoS’s activities, the CoS has been involved in a large number of Internet related incidents during 1995.  Most prominently, CoS has been crusading against online criticism of CoS and the release of CoS official documents.  This crusade has taken the CoS into the courts (in continuing litigation against Dennis Erlich, a former CoS minister, Netcom, and the sysop of a Hollywood BBS) and to Finland, where it was able to get local police to seize the records of the anonymous remailer there.

Starting in late 1994, messages critical of the CoS intended to be posted in alt.religion.scientology started disappearing.  (Those who track such things say that the cancellations continue to today.)  CoS detractors labeled the cancellations the work of the “CancelBunny,” and ardently believe that the CancelBunny is the work of the CoS.  Whatever the case, because the CancelBunny is used specifically to squelch CoS critics, it denies critics of the CoS the right to speak their mind in the forum of their choice.

More recently, in Summer 1995 an article appeared in the “Strait Times” entitled “How to Keep Singaporeans Out of Dark Alleys of Internet?”  This article discusses the dangers of information made available on the Internet.  However, the author closes by advocating a “self-help” remedy–”a solitary crusader can clear the slate of smut….[Like the CancelMoose,] any Singaporean Netizen, a citizen of the Internet, with technical savvy can follow suit.  It would be in the public interest.”

Apparently, to the author of that article, censoring based on content would be “in the public interest.”  Clearly, there are those who believe they have the right and obligation to use the cancelbot technology to enforce their private objectives.

As much as I fear the dangers of such thinking and its implication on civil liberties on a global scale, I also fear the application of such thinking on a personal level.  Imagine that a person decided to use the cancelbot technology not to enforce their will on society at large, but rather to affect the digital persona of a specific individual.

Let’s discuss how this could occur in practice.  Imagine Tom really dislikes Harry.  Tom decides to exact his toll on Harry by releasing a cancelbot that cancels every public posting Harry makes.  Through his cancelbot, Tom has denied Harry the ability to express his viewpoints to the Internet community.  As the Internet community becomes ever more ubiquitous, squelching a person’s right to access the online community would destroy their digital persona–in effect, make them a nonexistent person in the community.

Further, it is not clear that such activities would be illegal under existing laws.  The rules involving free speech protections in this country under the First Amendment apply only to government actors, not private individuals such as Tom.  Statutory solutions, such as anti-harassment laws, may be stretched to fit the situation, but few of these laws have been updated to reflect the ways people can harass online.  Laws may be updated to criminalize this behavior, but there are added complexities–if Tom uses an anonymous remailer, so that Tom cannot be easily located, or is located in a jurisdiction beyond the reach of the applicable laws, then Harry may lack any meaningful legal remedies.

I suspect the result will be that Harry will find a technological solution.  One such approach might be to cancelbot the cancelbot, or to forge a message that cancels the cancellation.  More abstractly, Harry will rely on his protective cancelbot to fend off the offensive cancelbot and find a way to get his message through.  In other words, I see the war of the cancelbots, and like other technological battles being waged on the Net (hackers v. security, copyright holders v. pirates), there will be a constant spiral of escalating technologies.  Who said the Cold War was over?

Ironically, given that cancelbots now exist and are very effective, it is a little surprising that we have not seen more abuse of their power.  Perhaps this reflects a willingness to tolerate speech on an individual level, which has otherwise been repressed as technophobes seek legislative solutions intended to tailor the online content to conform to their viewpoints.  Or perhaps this reflects the persistence of the Net culture, which admires its technology but condemns its abuse.  In an age of questionable ethics and constant fear, perhaps the surprising restraint shown so far with respect to cancelbots provides us with some optimism that our collective efforts can develop community norms more powerful and admirable than could be achieved by laws and codes.  And as for now, my digital persona still seems to be safe–except maybe from the Singaporeans…


About the author: Eric Schlachter is an attorney practicing in cyberspace law with the Silicon Valley law firm of Cooley Godward Castro Huddleson & Tatum.  He has a law degree and an MBA in Entrepreneurial Finance from UCLA.  He is an adjunct professor of Cyberspace Law at the University of San Francisco School of Law.  He can be reached at schlachtere@cooley.com.  The views expressed herein are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of his employer.