[NYT] On the power of personal mlist cults... Farber's I-P

Rohit Khare (rohit@uci.edu)
Mon, 14 Dec 1998 22:16:41 -0700

[Just imagine how unhappy he's going to be to see me in Hawaii... :-]

December 14, 1998
Witness in Microsoft Case Keeps the List of All Lists

When David Farber stepped down from the public stage of the witness stand
in the Microsoft antitrust trial last Wednesday after two days of
testimony, he found his own private audience eagerly awaiting his return.
And he did not disappoint them.

Logging on hours after returning from Washington to his home in Landenburg,
Pa., the 64-year-old University of Pennsylvania telecommunications
professor dispatched an e-mail message. "To all those who I have ignored,"
the subject line read. The text of the message went on to say, "I have
never felt so drained."

In Farber's case, "To all" refers to a sprawling network of 25,000 Internet
users who have maneuvered themselves onto his formidable mailing list over
the last decade. His list -- which he calls IP, for "interesting people" --
has a devoted following among the digerati, as well as less technological
types. And it gives him unrivaled, if unofficial, influence as a voice of
the Internet.

That status helps explain why the Justice Department chose Farber as an
expert witness for a trial in which a central question is whether Microsoft
tried to monopolize the market in Internet browser software.

As master of the IP list, Farber typically exercises his opinion almost
solely through a selection process in which he forwards three or four items
culled from hundreds of information sources that he deems most worthy of
attention each day. At most, he may add a one-line precis, as he did with a
simple "Bye bye liberty" atop a mailing last month citing an Army Times
article about the government's expanded antiterrorism surveillance.

But in last week's post-courtroom e-mail message, he allowed himself more
room for introspection.

"I am endlessly astonished that all too often the trials seem not to be
interested in extracting the truth," Farber wrote, after a difficult day of
cross-examination by Microsoft's lawyer, Steven Holley. "Oh well."

Appearing at a trial that has been dominated by software company
executives, Farber was the first technologist to testify without an obvious
ax to grind or damning e-mail record to refute. His testimony focused on
defining the technical terms that are at the core of the dispute: whether
Microsoft illegally used its monopoly in the personal computer operating
system market to give an unfair advantage to the company's browser
software, Internet Explorer.

Farber argued that software was "infinitely malleable" and that Microsoft
had designed its Windows 98 operating system so that consumers could not
remove Explorer.

Microsoft dismissed Farber's testimony as "nothing more than an opinion
piece on how he thinks Microsoft could have or should have designed
Windows." But it was an opinion that had a definite appeal among a large
segment of Internet users.

"The Internet reaction was like, 'Ah-hah, there's our guy,"' said Esther
Dyson, editor of Release 1.0, an influential industry newsletter, and chief
of an international governing agency for assigning Internet addresses. "The
trial has centered on the Internet, but it's all been about the
corporations of the Internet. It was nice to finally have the users and
creators represented in the courtroom, as well."

Even some of those rooting for Microsoft found cause to applaud Farber's
appearance, including Scott Bradner, a senior technical consultant at
Harvard University. Bradner was in Orlando, Fla., last week at an annual
meeting of the Internet Engineering Task Force, an industry association. He
said the 2,000 technology enthusiasts at the conference seemed of mixed
opinion about the Microsoft trial. But he said he and many others were glad
that Farber, a longtime member of the group, had taken the stand.

"There are more and more examples of where technical reality has to be
reconciled with the law," Bradner said. "It's important for objective
reporters of technology to be able to explain it to judges and juries in a
way they can understand."

Farber is a bald, grandfatherly figure whose tendency to round his Rs into
Ws finds him affectionately compared to Elmer Fudd. But it is a demeanor
belying a distinguished resume.

He grew up in Jersey City, N.J., holds a master's degree in mathematics
from the Stevens Institute of Technology, and helped invent the first
electronic telephone switch in the early '60s as an engineer at Bell
Laboratories. It was there that he also concocted the computer language
Snobol and met his wife, GG, before moving to Southern California and
helping to organize the Internet.

He has been at the University of Pennsylvania since 1989. In addition to
teaching a course there on computer ethics and society this term, Farber
has been a technical consultant for Intel Corp. and the Internet service
provider Earthlink, among others. He serves on the Presidential Advisory
Committee on High Performance Computing and Communications, and sits on the
board of the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation.

But he said in an interview last week that "the IP list has made me the
most famous."

The list began about 11 years ago, when Farber's friend Eric Bloch started
a demanding job at the National Science Foundation and complained that he
no longer had time to read news, on the Internet or anywhere else. Farber
began forwarding items to Bloch and then to others.

Soon, the list became to the technology elite what an invitation to Irving
(Swifty) Lazar's Oscar party once was to Hollywood's glitterati -- the
industry's place to be. And by now, the IP list is widely considered the
single most influential source of relevant and up-to-date news about all
dimensions of the technological world.

When Jon Postel, an Internet founder and a former PhD student of Farber's,
died unexpectedly last month, for instance, IPers learned about it before
anyone else. Word came through a posting by Farber that was followed by a
eulogy from Vint Cerf, a longtime associate who is now senior vice
president at MCI Worldcom and chairman of the Internet Society, a
professional group.

In recent years, Farber said he had enlarged and diversified the list,
including homemakers and students who had requested to be added to a group
of recipients that also includes Intel's chairman, Andrew Grove, and many
leading technology journalists.

The Internet has many mailing lists -- 90,095 by one count -- but Farber's
may reflect more than any other the power of distributed-information
networks. As he adds subscribers to the list, each becomes an additional
source of information. And Farber performs the function of a trusted

"He has become a social node in a network of people," said David Bennahum,
a subscriber to the list and author of a new book, "Extra Life," about
growing up with computers. "He helped form the Internet socially by
connecting all these important people together."

Even human network nodes have to rest sometimes, though. Late last week,
Farber posted what may be one of his final messages of the year to the IP

"After Sunday IP will be off the air and so will I for 10 days as I go off
to a place in Hawaii where there are no phones, no radios, no TVs etc. and
certainly no EMAIL," he wrote. "Have a good Hanukkah and a Merry Christmas