To Disappear, Piece of Internet History Lost

If there is one organisation that I hold in very high regard and have a lot of respect for, it’s the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The EFF formed after a US Secret Service raid on Steve Jackson Games‘ office, back in 1990, which owned the Illuminati Online BBS and later the domain. As Slashdot reports, the domain has been sold, and all email, shell, and homepage services will be transferred. A piece of internet history, right here, and a landmark in the fight for online freedom and free speech.

Since I am relatively young (I’m from December 1984), I never experienced the pre-web networking days of the BBS – I first went online at a friend’s house somewhere in 1994 or 1995, at which point the internet already started looking like the internet we know today. We got internet access at home somewhere in the summer of 1998 (with a blazing fast 33k6 modem and epic, unforgettable sound that I still miss to this day). I was 13, and flirting with some girl (at least, I hope so) in Switzerland using a computer. It was awesome.

Not too long after, about a year or so, we were one of the first in my tiny town to get cable internet. We were promised superfast internet, but since the technology was new, the speeds weren’t always reliable – nor was the connection. This is why I adopted the online handle ‘slakje’ (‘little snail’), which, up until very recently, was my preferred email handle ([email protected] still works, even though [email protected] is the primary address now).

Sorry for the personal anecdotes, but this story has me all nostalgic, and I’m hoping the comments will fill up with some of your personal early online anecdotes.

Anywho, let’s get on with it. Steve Jackson Games is a company that develops tabletop games (not computer games). For their customer support, they set up a BBS called the Illuminati BBS in April 1986, which ran on an Apple ][+ using T-Net software written in BASIC, and a 300 baud modem to talk to the outside world. They later switched to Joe-Net running on MS-DOS – “Best software we ever had”, according to Steve Jackson. The Illuminati BBS started out as a customer service portal, but soon filled up with loads of random chatter on whatever matter people found interesting.

Right around the time they were switching the Illuminati BBS over to WWIV, the offices of Steve Jackson Games were raided by the US Secret Service. While this raid occured alongside the infamous Operation Sundevil, the raid on SJG was not part of Sundevil. The reason for the raid was that Loyd Blankenship, then an employee of SJG, used to be a member of the Legion of Doom, and had published a BellSouth document about the 911 emergency system in the hacker online magazine Phrack. While at SJG, Loyd Blankenship worked on a game called GURPS Cyberpunk.

“On the morning of March 1, without warning, a force of armed Secret Service agents – accompanied by Austin police and at least one civilian ‘expert’ from the phone company – occupied the offices of Steve Jackson Games and began to search for computer equipment. The home of Loyd Blankenship, the writer of GURPS Cyberpunk, was also raided,” Steve Jackson Games’ website recalls, “A large amount of equipment was seized, including four computers, two laser printers, some loose hard disks and a great deal of assorted hardware. One of the computers was the one running the Illuminati BBS.”

It took SJG months to get all its stuff back from the Secret Service, and the interruption in its business nearly bankrupted the company. Half of all employees had to be laid off. The materials related to GURPS Cyberpunk were the main interest of the Secret Service, as they deemed it “a handbook for computer crime”. It was, in fact, a genre toolkit for cyberpunk-themed role-playing games – again, the table-top ones.

When finally, on October 21, 1990, the warrant was unsealed, it became clear that the Secret Service had little to no reason to raid SJG. “While reality-checking the book [GURPS Cyberpunk], Loyd Blankenship corresponded with a variety of people, from computer security experts to self-confessed computer crackers,” SJG explains, “From his home, he ran a legal BBS which discussed the ‘computer underground’, and he knew many of its members. That was enough to put him on a federal List of Dangerous Hoodlums!”

“The affidavit on which SJ Games were raided was unbelievably flimsy…” SJG continues, “Loyd Blankenship was suspect because he ran a technologically literate and politically irreverent BBS, because he wrote about hacking, and because he received and re-posted a copy of the /Phrack newsletter. The company was raided simply because Loyd worked there and used its (entirely different) BBS!”

As it turned out, GURPS Cyberpunk wasn’t the target of the raid at all – it was just something the Secret Service happened to find on the scene, something they could cling on to. In other words, this was a classic fishing expedition. Three years later, the court case Steve Jackson Games, Inc. v. United States Secret Service concluded, and damages were awarded to SJG. The judge in the case called the Secret Service “sloppy”, stating they had no basis to suspect SJG of anything. SJG was represented by the then-new Electronic Frontier Foundation.

This was one of many similar cases throughout the ’90s where the old world collided with the new, digital age. However, this case specifically is important because it was the direct cause for the creation of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

“Several informed technologists understood exactly what civil liberties issues were involved. Mitch Kapor, former president of Lotus Development Corporation, John Perry Barlow, Wyoming cattle rancher and lyricist for the Grateful Dead, and John Gilmore, an early employee of Sun Microsystems, decided to do something about it,” the EFF website details, “They formed an organization to work on civil liberties issues raised by new technologies.” One of the first people to lend financial support to the EFF was none other than Steve Wozniak. Ironic, if you think about it.

In other words, the raid on Steve Jackson Games’ office was a landmark case that established that legally speaking, email and electronic content are eligible for the same kinds of protection as regular mail and phone traffic. “We take for granted today that law enforcement must have a warrant that particularly describes all electronic mail messages before seizing and reading them. The Steve Jackson Games case established that principle,” the EFF notes.

Yesterday, it was announced that the domain had been sold to an undisclosed buyer. “Richards & Richards were former majority owners of PrismNet. They retained ownership of and granted PrismNet the use of for its customers when they sold their shares to Jody Badum,” a notice on the PrismNet website reads, “Richards & Richards has notified PrismNet that the domain has been sold to an unnamed party, PrismNet must cease using it by 07/01/2011 – July 1st.” Preparing for this change basically comes down to replacing with in all your settings, email addresses, homepages, and so on.

Some of the comments on Slashdot from users of io demonstrate how the BBS world and the early web differed greatly from today, like this one:

I remember in my BBS days reading about the SJ Games raid by the Secret Service.

And as soon as I discovered local internet access (mostly through a borrowed account on a VAX at a local school), I started giving SJG’s $10/month for a shell account.

But it wasn’t just a shell: It was a FreeBSD shell, back when Linux was still a toy, and it had an infallible NetApps backend with snapshots for ~ (which is still rare, even in this day of positively cheap disk storage). It was access to a good news spool, when Usenet was still Usenet. It was a short email address, when such things weren’t so special. It was an Apache web server, with a few megabytes of disk quota and plenty of slack if you needed more from time to time. AAnd a personalized anonymous FTP server. And a proper dev environment for building your own software from source.

All on a fast T1. (Remember when a T1 was fast, and a Pentium-based FreeBSD box with 32 or 64MB of RAM could host more than 100 concurrent interactive users? You yungin’s will say it’s impossible, but it worked well.)

And the operators and managers seemed to actually give a shit about their users’ needs. There was a sense of community between the users and the folks running the show that I’ve never seen elsewhere.

For a relative newcomer to the internet, I feel as if parts of the internet’s early days are slowly but surely disappearing. I’m just hoping that all this stuff is backed up, logged, written down, printed out, whatever – we must never forget how the internet started, what BBSs were for, how they worked, what they represented.

The internet today is at a turning point, with governments and corporations the world over seeing it as a genuine threat to their power. The internet has made it possible for people from all walks of life, from all over the world to get together, to make a fist against people they were unable to make a fist against before. I personally believe that the web is the greatest invention of mankind, the most powerful, the one most deserving to be fought for and protected – including all its values of freedom, transparency, porn, and lolcats.

To the powers that be, the internet is threatening. Therefore, they are trying to curb the freedom of the internet. We must not let this happen. SJG was one of the first battles, but certainly not the last.

The internet is a triumph, a huge success. I cannot overstate my satisfaction.


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