History of the Public Eye Electronic Forums
By Chip Berlet
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 BBSs 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 Bnai Brith
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.
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
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
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
- 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.