An organization that began in the summer of 1990 primarily in reaction to a threat to free speech. The triggering event was when the U.S. Secret Service completed raids to track down the dissemination of a document copied through illegal means from a Bell South computer. The contents of the document included the workings of the emergency 911 system. The gist of the problem as the Secret Service viewed it was that if “crackers” knew how to access the telephone lines dedicated to receiving emergency phone calls, those phone lines could become overloaded. Thus, individuals in a real emergency would be unable to connect to the 911 system. One of the alleged recipients of the said document was a systems operator employed by Steve Jackson Games. After executing a search warrant, the Secret Service confiscated from the Steve Jackson Games premises all the company’s computers and copies of a game book. The case ended with the Secret Service deciding not to charge the company with any crime, primarily because they could not locate any copies of the supposedly stolen 911 files on the company computers.
Even more disturbing for the company was that when the computers were returned, the publisher noticed that all the electronic mail stored on the company’s BBS (where users dialed in and transmitted messages of a personal nature to each other) had been not just accessed but also deleted. The publisher felt that both his rights to free speech and privacy as well as those of his BBS users had been violated. Though the publisher desperately searched for a civil liberties group to assist him in his cause, no group seemed to grasp the technology well enough to understand the importance of the high-tech freedom of speech and privacy issues he felt were being violated.
Finally, the publisher found someone who could assist him in a virtual community known as “the Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link” (now known as “WELL.com”). This community included some clever technologists who knew what civil liberties issues were at stake, including Mitch Kapor (once the president of Lotus Development Corporation), John Perry Barlow (a cattle rancher in Wyoming and former lyricist for the Grateful Dead musical group), and John Gilmore (of Sun Microsystems).
The trio started an organization to work on the civil liberties issues relevant to emerging technologies. On the day of the organization’s start-up announcement, the group said that it was representing not only Steve Jackson Games but also some of the company’s BBS users in a lawsuit against the U.S. Secret Service. It was this event that saw the birth of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, or EFF as it is called today.
The Steve Jackson Games legal case was an extremely important one, for it helped to define an appropriate legal framework for dealing with cyberspace free speech and privacy infringement issues. This was the first time that a court held that email deserves as much protection as telephone calls. That law enforcement agents must now obtain a warrant before seizing and/or reading emails was established as a principle in the Steve Jackson Games legal case. The Electronic Frontier Foundation still represents cases that set precedent for the treatment of freedom of speech and privacy rights in cyberspace. One particular case that reinforced the importance of jurisdiction was that of Russian Dmitry Sklyrov, who was arrested in Las Vegas about the time he was to give a speech at DefCon.
Electronic Frontier Foundation. About EFF. [Online, August 9, 2004.] Electronic Frontier Foundation Website. http://www.eff.org/about/; Electronic Frontier Foundation. Our Mission: With Digital Rights and Freedom for All. [Online, July 5, 2004.] Electronic Foundation Website. http://www.eff.org/mission.php.