The Net Interprets Censorship As Damage and Routes Around It

Howard Rheingold? John Gilmore? Michael Sattler? Philip Elmer-DeWitt? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Modern communication systems are designed to distribute messages even when some connections and modules are damaged. This resilience inspired an adage in the 1990s about the suppression of information. Here are two versions:

  • The net views censorship as damage and routes around it.
  • The internet treats censorship as a fault and reroutes around it.

Nowadays, the official and unofficial strategies used to impede the dissemination of information (and misinformation) have grown in scale and sophistication. Country-spanning data firewalls, court-mandated removal of webpages, social media deplatforming, and denial-of-service attacks have all been employed.

Yet, censorship is rarely completely successful. Would you please explore the provenance of this 20th-century adage?

Quote Investigator: Cultural critic Howard Rheingold penned influential early descriptions of online communities such as The Well, Usenet, and MUDs. In September 1993 he published “The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier”. Rheingold attributed the adage to prominent techno-activist John Gilmore. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Information can take so many alternative routes when one of the nodes of the network is removed that the Net is almost immortally flexible. It is this flexibility that CMC telecom pioneer John Gilmore referred to when he said, “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” This way of passing information and communication around a network as a distributed resource with no central control manifested in the rapid growth of the anarchic global conversation known as Usenet.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

On November 20, 1993 Michael Sattler posted to the Usenet newsgroup rec.radio.amateur.misc a message containing a different phrasing of the adage. No attribution was specified: 2

Remember: the net considers censorship as damage and tends to route around it.

On December 3, 1993 Denny Thomas ascribed the adage to Gilmore within a message posted to the Usenet newsgroup rec.audio.pro: 3

“The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it” John Gilmore

The December 6, 1993 issue of “Time” magazine printed a piece by journalist Philip Elmer-DeWitt who attributed the saying to Gilmore: 4

Unlike the family-oriented commercial services, which censor messages they find offensive, the Internet imposes no restrictions. Anybody can start a discussion on any topic and say anything. There have been sporadic attempts by local network managers to crack down on the raunchier discussion groups, but as Internet pioneer John Gilmore puts it, “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”

On December 10, 1993 Robert McMillin posted to the newsgroup alt.culture.internet a version of the saying with the word “internet” instead of “net”: 5

“The Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”
— John Gilmore

In 1994 Rheingold published an opinion piece in “The Observer” of London in which he repeated the adage and its ascription to Gilmore: 6

Because “Censor the Net!” is not just a morally misguided cry. It’s becoming technically impossible to carry out. Internet pioneer and Electronic Frontier Foundation founder John Gilmore is often quoted in this regard: “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”

John Gilmore operates the domain toad.com and uses the name “Toad Hall” for his website. A section is dedicated to “Things I’ve Said (That People Sometimes Remember)”. Gilmore lists his adage and includes the “Time” magazine citation: 7

“The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”
This was quoted in Time Magazine’s December 6, 1993 article “First Nation in Cyberspace”, by Philip Elmer-DeWitt.

Gilmore presented an explanation for his saying:

In its original form, it meant that the Usenet software (which moves messages around in discussion newsgroups) was resistant to censorship because, if a node drops certain messages because it doesn’t like their subject, the messages find their way past that node anyway by some other route. This is also a reference to the packet-routing protocols that the Internet uses to direct packets around any broken wires or fiber connections or routers. (They don’t redirect around selective censorship, but they do recover if an entire node is shut down to censor it.)

Gilmore also stated that the denotation of the saying has broadened over time:

The meaning of the phrase has grown through the years. Internet users have proven it time after time, by personally and publicly replicating information that is threatened with destruction or censorship. If you now consider the Net to be not only the wires and machines, but the people and their social structures who use the machines, it is more true than ever.

In conclusion, QI believes that John Gilmore deserves credit for this saying based on the 1993 testimony of Howard Rheingold and based on the statements of Gilmore himself.

Image Notes: Public domain abstract illustration of a computer network from geralt at Pixabay. Image has been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Ian Darwin whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1993, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier by Howard Rheingold, Chapter Introduction, Quote Page 7, First Printing: September 1993, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Reading, Massachusetts.
  2. 1993 November 20, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: rec.radio.amateur.misc, From: Michael Sattler @netcom.com, Subject: Re: CENSORSHIP WARNING. (Google Groups Search; Accessed July 11, 2021)
  3. 1993 December 3, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: rec.audio.pro, From: Denny Thomas @netcom.com, Subject: cable in conduit. (Google Groups Search; Accessed July 11, 2021)
  4. 1993 December 6, Time Magazine, Volume 142, Issue 24, First Nation in Cyberspace by Philip Elmer-DeWitt and David S. Jackson, Start Page 62, Time Inc., New York. (EBSCO Academic Search Elite)
  5. 1993 December 10, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: alt.culture.internet, From: Robert McMillin @netcom.com, Subject: Re: France and Internet providers policy. (Google Groups Search; Accessed July 12, 2021)
  6. 1994 April 24, The Observer, Supplement 3: Uncensored, Uncensorable worlds by Howard Rheingold, Start Page 14, Quote Page 14, Column 1, London, England. (ProQuest)
  7. Website: Toad Hall of John Gilmore, Webpage title: John Gilmore, Entrepreneur and Civil Libertarian, Webpage section title: Things I’ve Said (That People Sometimes Remember), Article author: John Gilmore, Date according to website: Webpage last updated November 27, 2013, Website description: John Gilmore’s website. (Accessed toad.com on July 12, 2021) link