From: mnemo...@eff.org (Mike Godwin)
Subject: The EFF and electronic communities
Date: 26 May 91 19:05:15 GMT
References: <1991May24.email@example.com> <1991May26.firstname.lastname@example.org>
Organization: The Electronic Frontier Foundation
This article is reprinted from the Summer 1991 issue of the WHOLE
EARTH REVIEW. That issue contains a selection of pieces that, like
this one, discuss how electronic communities can be used to
generate political action. It is currently on the newsstands.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation and Virtual Communities
By Mike Godwin
Introduction by Howard Rheingold:
Mike Godwin is the staff counsel for The Electronic Frontier Foundation
(EFF). EFF has been established to help civilize the electronic frontier;
to make it truly useful and beneficial to everyone, not just an elite; and
to do this in a way that is in keeping with our society's highest
traditions of the free and open flow of information and communication. For
information about the EFF, email mnemo...@eff.org, write EFF, 155 Second
Street, Cambridge, MA 02141, or call 617 864 1550.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation is living proof of the
existence and effectiveness of virtual digital communities. Not only did
EFF arise from the interactions of citizens who were, and are, "neighbors"
in electronic communities, but the EFF has also gone on to establish its
own communities, not the least of which is the EFF conference on the WELL
(Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link).
The WELL was a key community from the beginning. The way
communities normally shape their responses to outside events is for
neighbors to chat - perhaps even gossip - over the fence. It was this kind
of informal exchange of information that led to two crystallizing events
behind EFF's formation. The first was an online WELL conference on
"hacking" sponsored by Harper's magazine. One result of that conference
was that WELL user and Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow met and
befriended a couple of hackers who went by the cyberpunkish noms-de-hack
"Acid Phreak" and "Phiber Optik." Although they "knew" each other
electronically, Barlow's face-to-face meeting with Acid and Optik was a
revelation: "Acid and Optik, as material beings, were well-scrubbed and
fashionably clad," Barlow later wrote. "They looked to be as dangerous as
ducks." Barlow soon concluded that law enforcement's characterization of
these hackers as major computer criminals was disproportionate to their
actions, which had more to do with intellectual curiosity and youthful
exploration than with genuine criminal intent.
The second crystallizing event occurred when Barlow and another
WELL user, Mitch Kapor (a founder of Lotus Development Corp. and On
Technology) compared notes about their respective visits by FBI agents.
The agents were investigating the unauthorized copying and distribution of
Apple's proprietary source code for the ROMs in Apple's Macintosh
computer, and both Kapor and Barlow were startled by how little the FBI
seemed to know about the nature of the alleged crimes they were
investigating, and Barlow later published an account of the visit on the
WELL (and print-published as "Crime and Puzzlement" in WER #68).
As Barlow later writes in the March issue of the Foundation's
print newsletter, the EFFector: "Mitch's experience had been as dreamlike
as mine. He had, in fact, filed the whole thing under General
Inexplicability until he read my tale on the WELL.... Several days later,
he found his bizjet about to fly over Wyoming on its way to San Francisco.
He called me from somewhere over South Dakota and asked if he might
literally drop in for a chat about [the agents' visits] and related
matters. So, while a late spring snow storm swirled outside my office, we
spent several hours hatching what became the Electronic Frontier
Having met in person when Barlow interviewed Kapor for Microtimes,
the two future EFF co-founders had used the WELL to build on their
face-to-face contact. In effect, they had become next-door neighbors,
although Barlow lived in Pinedale, Wyoming, while Kapor lived in
Brookline, Massachusetts. Says Barlow: "There was a sense that what was
going on was a threat to our community." So Barlow and Kapor did what
neighbors often do in response to a neighborhood problem - they formed a
citizens' group. In this case, the citizens' group was the EFF.
I had a chance to play my own role in another example of such
concerned citizen action in my then-hometown, Austin, Texas, which has
more than its share of computer bulletin-board systems (BBSs). On March 1,
1990, one of those BBSs was seized by the United States Secret Service,
which claimed at the time that the system, run by the Austin-based
role-playing game company Steve Jackson Games. Although neither Jackson
nor his company turned out to be the targets of the Secret Service's
criminal investigation, Jackson was told that the manual for a
role-playing game they were about to publish (called GURPS Cyberpunk and
stored on the hard disk of the company's BBS computer) was a "handbook for
Austin's BBS community was startled, then outraged, by the
seizure, which had the potential of putting Jackson, an innocent third
party, out of business. On a BBS called "Flight" there was a hot debate
about the media's failure to pick up on Jackson's story. A third-year law
student and former journalist and Flight user, I theorized on Flight that
the media hadn't covered the story because they didn't know about it. Or,
at least, they didn't understand the issues.
So, to test my theory, I gathered together several postings from
local BBSs and from Usenet, the distributed BBS that runs on the Internet
and connected computers, and trekked down to the Austin American-Statesman
office to talk to a friend of mine, Kyle Pope, who covered
computer-related stories. I also took him photocopies of the statutes that
give the Secret Service jurisdiction over computer crime and lots of phone
numbers of potential sources. At the same time, I called and modemed
materials to John Schwartz, a friend and former colleague who was now an
editor at Newsweek.
Pope's lengthy, copyrighted story on the Secret Service seizure
appeared in the American-Statesman the following weekend. John Schwartz's
story, which covered the Steve Jackson Games incident as well as the
Secret Service's involvement in a nationwide computer-crime "dragnet,"
appeared in Newsweek's April 30 issue. The heavy-handed tactics and
overbroad seizure at Steve Jackson Games became a symbol of the
law-enforcement community's misconceptions and fears about young computer
hackers, and provided a context for Barlow's and Kapor's discussions about
creating the EFF.
Once they agreed on what needed to be done, Kapor and Barlow went
back to the WELL and drew upon the collective wisdom of that community for
input into the tactics and strategy of the newly formed foundation. The
same week they announced the EFF's formation in Washington, D.C., they
started the EFF conference on the WELL - sort of a community within a
community which quickly became one of the system's most active
Soon afterward, they created two new newsgroups on Usenet
Qcomp.org.eff.news and comp.org.eff.talk. The latter newsgroup, like all
active newsgroups, has become a community of sorts itself, with a diverse
collection of voices addressing - sometimes heatedly - the issues that
arise as we proceed to explore and civilize the electronic frontier.
Almost immediately after the foundation was officially launched,
EFF's efforts to assist in the defense of electronic publisher Craig
Neidorf had tangible results. Neidorf had been prosecuted for publishing a
BellSouth text file relating to the E-911 system (see "Attacks on the Bill
of Rights," WER #70). EFF's law firm, Rabinowitz, Boudin, Standard,
Krinsky, Lieberman, submitted an amicus curiae brief defending Neidorf's
First Amendment rights as a publisher. We also helped Neidorf's defense
counsel assemble experts to testify on his client's behalf. And a member
of the WELL's EFF conference came up with the information that was
critical in persuading the prosecutors to drop their case.
It's clear that EFF is not only the product of electronic
communities, but has also produced some new communities while continuing
to contribute to old ones. It's also clear that the sense of community was
seeded by face-to-face contact at key points: when Barlow met Acid and
Optik, for example, and when he interviewed Kapor. The need for at least
occasional face-to-face contact, Kapor still stresses, means that current
networks and BBSs don't simply create community; instead, they amplify it.
Or, to be even more accurate, the two phenomena exist in a complex state
of coevolution, with face-to-face contacts fueling the electronic
relationships (and vice versa).
One of the things you often see when you read discussions about
EFF on the WELL or on Usenet is a sense that the EFF has become a
representative body. While this is misleading - EFF is not yet a
membership organization - it's still the case that EFF is regarded as an
advocacy group for electronic communities generally. You'll often read
comments from Usenet folks who think the most appropriate pronouns when
talking about the EFF are "we," "us," and "our."
And if that neighborly sense of belonging doesn't prove the
existence of a community, I don't know what does.
Mike Godwin, | To see a world in a grain of sand
mnemo...@eff.org | And heaven in a wild flower
(617) 864-0665 | Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
EFF, Cambridge, MA | And eternity in an hour