History of the Public Eye Electronic Forums

The Public Eye Network first went online with a local computer Bulletin Board System dubbed AMNET in 1985. The idea for such a system started when a small group of anarchist hackers tipped me off to the existence of the racist computer BBS’s in late 1984, and on January 5, 1985 I issued a one page memo on the “KKK/Aryan Racist Computer Networks,” to a group of researchers monitoring the political right.(1)
On January 24, 1985 The Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith released a six page study on the subject, “Computerized Networks of Hate,” as one of its periodic Fact Finding Reports. Reporter Wayne King, who covered White supremacists for The New York Times, sparked major public awareness of online hate. His article “Link by Computer Used by Rightists,” in February of 1985 described the three-city Aryan Liberty Network and cited its self-description as “a pro-American, pro-White, anti-Communist network of true believers who serve the one and only God--Jesus, the Christ.”(2)

At a March 1985 meeting of the National Anti-Klan Network in Kansas City, there was a discussion of setting up a BBS to counter the White supremacists, and in May I circulated a memo on the subject of a progressive BBS to twenty groups To a large extent people liked the idea, but nobody wanted to expend the resources to sponsor the system.

In June 1985 I presented a paper at a national conference on Issues in Technology and Privacy organized by Professor George Trubow of the Center for Information Technology and Privacy Law at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago.(3)The debate over computer networks and BBSs was so new that Jerry Berman of the American Civil Liberties Union argued that the BBSs and online systems were just public carriers like telephone companies and thus had no First Amendment rights. Our jaws just hit the floor. Part of my presentation was an attempt to explain that some of the BBSs were just like magazines or newspapers--a new electronic form of journalism, public information, and debate--and therefore entitled to Constitutional protections. I included examples of racist BBS texts in the appendix to the paper, and during the conference discussion suggested that government censorship was not an appropriate solution.(4) At about the same time the Rev. Jesse Jackson issued a call for an anti-racist BBS, and several activists at a progressive conference in the Midwest, including Lyn Wells, director of the National Anti-Klan Network, issued a call for a progressive computer news service.

With the threat that the government would restrict the civil liberties of BBSs as a major justification, the National Lawyers Guild agreed to fund the venture so it could serve as a legal test case if it became necessary. After a few meetings of Chicago-area activists, the system went up in my basement in late July of 1985 on an Atari game computer. Dubbed AMNET BBS, (as in American Network) it was the second progressive on an BBS system in the US, and the first BBS devoted exclusively to challenging the right.(5) Alan Fenske kept the hardware running while I acted as System Operator (SYSOP) and editor. AMNET promoted democracy, pluralism, and civil liberties, while assisting those organizing against racism, fascism, antisemitism, sexism and homophobia. After a few months, we began to upgraded our system, ending up using for years a reliable refurbished Xerox business computer, before moving to a PC.

In 1985 it was difficult to explain to people why they should be concerned about online hate when only a tiny fraction of the population owned a computer with a modem. My solution was to purchase a used briefcase-sized portable thermal printer/terminal with a built-in rubber cuff modem into which one stuffed a telephone handset. With no display, it acted like a portable Teletype machine, printing out the text that would normally appear on a screen. I would lug the terminal to speeches and go online. While I was talking about the growth of far right recruitment of youth in the Midwest, the printer would be spewing out a continuous role of thermal paper filled with antisemitic and racist text being downloaded in real time. At the end of the speech I would invite the audience to tear off several feet and bring it home to read and discuss with their children.

Running AMNET

Some of the people who helped set up AMNET were reacting to the growth of the Aryan Nation/Ku Klux Klan BBS network. Others sought a way for civil rights and civil liberties activists to exchange computerized information. Some were worried about the attack on working people by union-busters, or the growth of the electoral New Right. All were concerned with civil liberties, and were worried about attempts to pass legislation restricting the rights of BBS's. (For a list of the people issuing the original call and the people who attended the first organizing meeting, see below.

The call came during a period of increased organizing by right-wing groups, and increasing surveillance and harassment of social change groups by the FBI and other public and private agencies. Because of this, among the first files posted were complete instructions (from FOIA, Inc.) on how to use the federal Freedom of Information Act to obtain files held by the FBI and CIA; and guidelines for "Common Sense Security" for movement activists. Funding came from the National Lawyers Guild Civil Liberties Committee with additional support from Midwest Research, which later became Political Research Associates. The original target date was the Fourth of July, but it took longer than expected to test and tweak the system, so the actual date was sometime near the end of July 1985.

An early campaign launched by AMNET was to alert other BBS's and their users of the Telecommunications and Privacy Act of 1986. AMNET worked with The Well and LAWMUG BBS to organize modem users to contact public officials whose staff were drafting the legislation. The funding AMNET received from the NLG Civil Liberties Committee was in part to explicitly operate as a public information forum and to serve as a test case if legislation was passed that restricted the First Amendment rights of BBS's.

Unsung heroes in the battle to protect BBS rights include attorneys Paul Bernstein and George Trubow, and Professor Jennifer K. Bankier from Dalhousie Law School in Nova Scotia, Canada, all of whom defended BBS rights at the 1985 computer privacy conference in Chicago. Bernstein stayed up all night to write an impassioned defense of BBS rights which he delivered to the conference before flying off to prepare for the funeral of his father who died the day before.(6) Harry M. Goodman and Donna Hall, coordinators of the Legal Conference on California's Well system conducted extensive discussions and an educational campaign regarding privacy and computers. Because of these and other efforts by many activists across the country, the ACLU soon adopted a view of BBSs that recognized their First Amendment aspects, and legislation that would have severely restricted those rights failed to gain support on Congress.

AMNET quickly outgrew the Atari, and Richard Gaikowski, SYSOP of the first progressive BBS system, NEWSBASE BBS in California, offered his BBS software, a redesign of Dennis Recla's original RBBS.COM. Irv Hoff helped with BYE.COM needed to run our first CP/M machine, a Sanyo. AMNET operated on several computers over the years, including a Radio Shack Model II, and a Xerox 16/8 under the CP/M operating system. While moving physically to the Boston area, AMNET was briefly hosted in Chicago on a BBS run by Jerry Olsen. This allowed for continuous operation of AMNET BBS. After moving to Boston, the AMNET BBS was re-named The Public Eye BBS. It now runs on a rotating series of aging IBM compatible clones relying on a shelf of refurbished hard disk drives.

Over the years the BBS was cosponsored by Political Research Associates, the National Lawyers Guild Civil Liberties Committee, and Chicago's Bill of Rights Foundation. Cooperation and assistance also came from the Center for Democratic Renewal (CDR), and the Fund for Open Information & Accountability, Inc. (FOIA, Inc.). Additional research assistance came from Adele Oltman, and technical assistance from Bill Bowles, SYSOP of the New York Online BBS.

In the late 1980's, the number of progressive BBS's had grown considerably, and discussions were held about setting up a national network of progressive, anti-racist, BBS's. Early attempts at creating a national network of progressive online systems were discussions held on The Well, and a short-lived 1985 network (Greennet) organized in part by Ben Masel of the Yippies/US Greens was hosted on the Delphi system. In January of 1985, Johan Carlisle circulated a proposal for a progressive online system to facilitate social change.(7) Early networking also took place on The Source and Genie. In 1986 Mark Graham and Michael Shuman set up the Peacenet online system. A number of mainstream social service agencies and non-profits set up networks, and one successful 1987 venture became HandsNet.

Graham campaigned among progressive BBS operators and network SYSOPs to consider the alternative of allying with Peacenet (which spawned the Institute for Global Communications (IGC) network) instead of setting up separate BBS networks and sections on commercial systems. The PublicEye conference on Peacenet was originally set up with the assistance of Mark Graham, and evolved and grew with the continuing advice and technical support of the staff of Peacenet and the Institute for Global Communications. For several years the public eye online was hosted by the IGC networks, with the assistance of web programming consultant George Gundrey.

The Public Eye web pages on the Internet are currently sponsored by Political Research Associates. The AMNET BBS receives additional assistance from the National Lawyers Guild Civil Liberties Committee.

For the Record:

There was a tradition in public domain programming and early BBS construction to preserve a history file that credited the many persons involved in the process. This not only gives appropriate credit, but also reveals the process of cooperation and mutual assistance that makes most such projects possible. We believe this tradition is one that progressive persons involved in telecommunications and the Information Superhighway should preserve.

Signers of the call for an "Instant Progressive News" service online were:

Slim Coleman, president, Common Ground, editor, All Chicago City News.
Jim Balanoff, City Councilman, Hammond, IN.
Jack Metzger, editor, Labor Research Review.
Lyn Wells, coordinator, National Anti Klan Network
Abdul Akalimat, editor Afro Scholar.
Mike "Kentucky Stout, Tri-State Conference (Pittsburgh) Chair of Grievers United Steel Workers of America Local 1397
In addition, the call was later endorsed by:
John Conyers, US House of Representatives.
David Gordon, Beyond Wasteland.
Rev. Massey, National Council, United Methodist Church.
Les Leopold, Institute for Labor Education and Research.

The original attendees at the founding meeting to actually put AMNET online were:

Al Fenske,
Aysha Mibiti,
Bill Boardman,
Mickey Jarvis
Chip Berlet

The May 1985 Public Eye memo suggesting an online network of progressive research groups was sent to:

Common History Institute
Midwest Research
National Lawyers Guild Civil Liberties Committee
Public Eye Magazine and Network
The Hammer magazine, (Kansas City)
The Christic Institute
The Data Center (Oakland, CA)
Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights/NCARL Midwest
Chicago Teamsters for a Democratic Union
Interchange D.C. Office
National Anti-Klan Network
Covert Action Information Bulletin
Center for Investigative Reporting
African Scholar
Selected United Steelworkers Locals
Assorted Independent Researchers

(1)Chip Berlet. “KKK/Aryan Racist Computer Networks.” Memo. Chicago: Midwest Research, January 5, 1985.

(2) WayneKing, “Link by Computer Used by Rightists.”

(3) Chip Berlet, Privacy and the PC: Mutually Exclusive Realities? Chicago, Midwest Research [now Political Research Associates], 1985. Prepared for the 1985 national conference on Issues in Technology and Privacy -- sponsored by the Center for Information Technology and Privacy Law John Marshall Law School, Chicago, Illinois, June 21-23 1985. Conference coordinator, professor George Trubow. A project of the National Bar Association Foundation. Funded by the Benton Foundation

(4) At the end of the paper are three messages posted to various BBSs in 1985 warning about pending legislation.

(5) The first progressive BBS, NEWSBASE, was set up in 1984 by Richard Gaikowski in California; see Connie Blitt & Dennis Bernstein, “On the Electronic Graffiti Soapbox,” In These Times, July 23-August 5, 1986, p. 24.

(6) Paul Bernstein, "Bulletin Boards and Legislation -- An Overview," conference position paper revised and reprinted in Law Mug Newsletter, v. 11, n 10, July 1985, pp. 14-17. The November 1985 issue of the newsletter contains the testimony of Thomas S. Warrick before the Senate Committee on Juvenile Justice against the restrictive language in the Trible Bill.

(7) Johan Carlisle, "Common History Institute (CHI): A Proposal for a New Organization," 1/15/85.


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