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  austin - jon lebkowsky

cyberdawgs and cyber rights: eff-austin rocks on!

In 1877, just a year after Alexander Graham Bell made his first breathless phone call to Watson, telephone experiments were conducted (where else but) in Austin, Texas. Then in 1880, a year after the first telephone exchange was formed in Hartford, Connecticut, Austin formed the second. It makes historical sense, then, that Austin would hang a longterm bear hug on the cutting edge of telecommunications, pushing the network access envelope as well as kickstarting the nascent cyber rights movement a hundred years after Bell.

The raid on Steve Jackson Games in 1990 and the successful suit Jackson subsequently brought against the U.S. Government galvanized the national movement that was building behind the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which picked the Steve Jackson case as its first major project. At the time, Austin had dozens of hyperactive BBSs and a huge Internet presence fed by the University of Texas' system. Voluble BBS denizens were beginning to find access to national forums, such as the WELL. One of the earliest consumer ISPs, Real/Time Communications, was forming.

On a hot and dusty July '91 afternoon, out behind Steve Jackson Games' modified warehouse digs, core members of Austin's wired community met over hot dawgs and cold beer to swap stories, gripe about the raid, and organize some kinda response. Old-fashioned soap boxing: Steve hopped onto a picnic table for an extended rant that included a call for activism beyond the thrashes about the impropriety of the raid. The powerful had screwed up, and Steve was gonna fight the fight to make sure it wouldn't happen again. But his fight was not enough -- some kind of organized vigilance and response team was warranted: something like national EFF, but on a local level.

In fact, national EFF was working to become a powerful member-based grassroots organization, and local or regional chapters could become a significant part of that project. Mitch Kapor of EFF authorized Steve to find some like-minded folks in Austin and build an alpha chapter to test the concept. Thus EFF-Austin was born when Steve enlisted at the cyberdawg picnic a core group of volunteers, the founding Board of Directors: including Steve, John Quarterman and Smoot Carl-Mitchell of Texas Internet Consulting, Matt Lawrence, Lew Oleinick, Lars Kaufmann, and yer own jonl.

EFF eventually decided not to support chapters, moving instead to Washington for more direct lobbying of the legislature. This decision presented no problem for EFF-Austin. The local group, now incorporated as a freestanding entity, had a substantial life of its own, organizaing meetings, miniconferences, book signings,and cyberarts events. EFF-Austin's online presence included a moderated newsgroup linked to an email list, a gopherspace, and a web site.

Today EFF-Austin is one of several international "EF" organizations. When we started you couldn't buy a cheap Internet account on an ISP; now Austin has twenty or so ISPs and Texas has an ISP association. The emphasis on hacking vs. cracking is a dim memory, replaced by pressing constitutional concerns over First and Fourth Amendment rights.

The EFF-Austin Board of Directors still meets every month at Steve Jackson Games. And the organization is still jammin' along with meetings, projects, and plans, pushed with the help of coordinator Tom Swinnea, finally hired after a half decade of part-timin' and shoe-stringin'.

The current prez, David Smith, (pictured here on the right, along with directors Allen Graham and Jim Robinson) initiated monthly member meetings held the first Monday of each month at La Madalein, a French buffet in central Austin. A few regulars show, and the total in attendance is usually no more than twenty, but those twenty are knowledgeable and the discussions have real meat on the bone, -- it's a happening place to be.


jzitt said:

One thing I liked about living in (of all places) Brooklyn, was that I could walk to anything I needed to get to. For that matter, I've lived over the years in two places in Austin where I didn't need a car except for getting to work: Riverside Drive a few blocks from I-35 (back when Half-Price Books was still there) and at the Northcross Apartments, across from the Northcross Mall and the Village Theatre. The Northcross location was quite nice -- I was off a walkway far enough, but not too far, from the parking lot. I ate at Furr's at the mall a lot -- It was actually closer to my apartment than the college dining hall was when I was a student, and the food was of comparable quality, so I sort of considered it the commune eatery. :-)

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Highlights of EFF-Austin's History

January 1993: Sysop Liability Conference. Several of the most knowledgeable 'cyber' attorneys in the U.S., including Lance Rose, Mike Godwin, and Pete Kennedy, advised BBS sysops of their rights and responsibilities in a context where BBS seizures were increasingly commonplace. Organized by EFF-Austin vice president Ed Cavazos, a UT law student at the time. Ed went on to write Cyberspace and the Law with Gavino Morin.

April 1993: Copcon. Organized by Bruce Sterling, this presentation by Sun Devil prosecutor Gail Thackeray drew a large crowd to a locked auditorium at the UT campus. We scheduled the room without knowing that nobody was working that weekend to open the doors! We did find a key, but there was no projector for Thackeray's essential slides, so with help from an a-v-friendly audience member we hacked an overhead projector to handle slides. Sterling solidified his role as police liaison for EFF-Austin.

September 1993: Crypto Conference. National EFF, having abandoned the chapters movement but still looking for grassroots presence, decided to hold board meetings around the country, where groups like EFF-Austin were forming. The September '93 EFF board meeting was scheduled for Austin, so we coevolved a plan for a public event that would bring EFF before the public. Cryptography was the natural subject, since it was a white hot topic then as now. EFF board members including Mitch Kapor, Esther Dyson, John Gilmore, John Perry Barlow, and Jerry Berman participated, along with staff counsel Mike Godwin and fellow traveler Eric Hughes.

April 1994: Virtual Communities. Howard Rheingold, visiting Austin to present the Millennium Whole Earth Catalog to the publisher's regional meeting, agreed to speak at this EFF-Austin event, which was co-sponsored by Point Foundation/Whole Earth Review. Fidonet creator Tom Jennings also spoke in both Austin and Houston. Sandy Stone, originally scheduled to speak in person, had a conflict, so she appeared virtually, on videotape.

September 1996: Cyber Rights 96. An event co-sponsored with Electronic Frontiers Houston, held in venues in both cities. Inevitable focus of this event was the just-'defeated' Communications Decency Act and online censorship. Participants included Mike Godwin of EFF, Ann Beeson of ACLU, Todd Lappin from Wired, Shabbir Safdar from VTW, Gene Crick of the Metropolitan Austin Interactive Network, Jim Robinson of Steve Jackson Games, Ed Cavazos of Andrews and Kurth, and jonl.

Also in Austin:

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Jon Lebkowsky visits once famous rocker Shawn Phillips, who now divides his time down in Austin between digital sequencers and fire trucks.

vr in 3space - realspace, mindspace, cyberspace
Follow Austin hardware innovator Brian Park's quest for the ultimate VR simulator in this Jam report from Jon Lebkowsky.

going native in cyberspace
Austin cyberarts pioneer, Bob Anderson's passion for pixels and networked collaboration are explored in this encounter with Jon Lebkowsky.

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