July 21, 1990: Neil Patrick Harris and Alyssa Milano were on the cover of TV Guide, Pink Floyd performed near the ruins of the Berlin Wall, and First Lady Barbara Bush christened the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier the USS George Washington. But perhaps the most significant touchstone, at least to those of us in the digital civil liberties movement, is that EFF founder John Perry Barlow sent the first-ever EFF email blast to our supporters. 

In the email, sent out 11 days after EFF was publicly launched, Barlow explains that EFF was founded to ensure that our constitutional right to free speech is protected across digital media. Nearly 700 e-newsletters later, EFF is still defending your right to free expression, not just in the U.S. but globally, as well fighting for transparency, encryption, privacy, and innovation. 

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For your throwback reading pleasure, here's the full text of that historic email blast: 

From: John Perry Barlow 
Date: Saturday, July 21, 1990

Good people,

Greetings. Some of you who read Crime and Puzzlement when it first went digital and offered immediate help in dealing with the issues raised therein. It's been five weeks since I promised to get back to you "shortly." It is now clear that we are operating on political rather than electronic time. And political time, though not so ponderous as geologic time or, worse, legal time, is hardly swift. The Net may be instantaneous, but people are as slow as ever.

Nevertheless, much has happened since early June. Crime and Puzzlement rattled all over Cyberspace and has, by now, generated almost 300 unsolicited offers of help...financial, physical, and virtual. At times during this period I responded to as many as 100 e-mail messages a day with the average running around 50. (The voice of Peter Lorre is heard in the background, repeating, "Toktor, ve haf created a *monster*.")

Well, we have at least created an organization. Lotus founder Mitch Kapor and I have founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an endeavor for which we have immodest ambitions. Descending from the Computer Liberty Foundation mentioned in Crime and Puzzlement, the EFF has received initial (and extremely generous) funding from Mitch, Steve Wozniak, and another Silicon Valley pioneer who wishes to remain anonymous. We have also received many smaller offers of support.

As you will see in the accompanying press release, we formally announced the EFF at a press conference in Washington on July 10. The press attention was lavish but predictable...KAPOR TO AID COMPUTER CRIMINALS. Actually, our mission is nothing less than the civilization of Cyberspace.

We mean to achieve this through a variety of undertakings, ranging from immediate legal action to patient, long-lasting efforts aimed at forming, in the public consciousness, useful metaphors for life in the Datasphere. There is much to do. Here is an abbreviated description of what we are already doing:

  • We have engaged the law firms of Rabinowitz, Boudin, Standard, Krinsky & Lieberman and Silverglate & Good to intervene on behalf of Craig Neidorf (the publisher of Phrack) and Steve Jackson Games. (For a digest of the legal issues, please see the message following this one.) We became involved in these particular cases because of their general relevance and we remain alert to developments in a number of other related cases.

Despite what you may have read, we are not involved in these legal matters as a "cracker's defense fund," but rather to ensure that the Constitution will continue to apply to digital media. Free expression must be preserved long after the last printing press is gathering museum dust. And we intend an unequivocal legal demonstration that speech is speech whether it finds form in ink or in ascii.

  • We have funded a significant two-year project on computing and civil liberties to be managed by the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. With it, we aim to acquaint policy makers and law enforcement officials of the civil liberties issues which may lie hidden in the brambles of telecommunications policy. (A full description of this project follows.)
  • During the days before and after the press conference, Mitch and I met with Congressional staffers, legal authorities, and journalists, as well as officials from the White House and Library of Congress. Thus we began discussions which we expect to continue over a period of years. These informal sessions will relate to intellectual property, free flow of information, law enforcement training and techniques, and telecommunications law, infrastructure, and regulation.

Much of this promises to be boring as dirt, but we believe that it is necessary to "re-package" the central issues in more digestible, even entertaining, forms if the general public is to become involved in the policies which will fundamentally determine the future of American liberty.

* Recognizing that Cyberspace will be only as civilized as its inhabitants, we are working with a software developer to create an "intelligent front end" for UNIX mail systems. This will, we hope, make Net access so easy that your mother will be able cruise around the digital domain (if you can figure out a way to make her want to). As many of you are keenly aware, the best way, perhaps the only way, to understand the issues involved in digital telecommunications is to experience them first hand.

These are audacious goals. However, the enthusiasm already shown the Foundation indicates that they may not be unrealistic ones. The EFF could be like a seed crystal dropped into a super-saturated solution. (Or perhaps more appropriately, "the hundredth monkey.") Our organization has been so far extremely self-generative as people find in it an expression for concerns which they had felt but had not articulated.

In any case, we are seeing a spirit of voluntary engagement which is quite a departure from the common public interest sensation of "pushing a rope."

You, the recipients of this first e-mailing are the pioneers in this effort. By coming forward and offering your support, both financial and personal, you are doing much to define the eventual structure and flavor of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

And much remains to be defined. We are applying for 501(c)3 status, which means that your contributions to the Foundation will be tax deductible at the time this status is granted. However, tax-exempt status also places restrictions on the ability to lobby which may not be consistent with our mission. Like many activist organizations, we may find it necessary to maintain two organizations, one for lobbying and the other for education.

We are in the process of setting up both a BBS in Cambridge and a Net newsgroups. None of this is as straightforward as we would have it be. We have also just received an offer of production and editorial help with a newsletter.

What can you do? Well, for starters, you can spread the word about EFF as widely as possible, both on and off the Net. Feel free, for example, to distribute any of the materials included in this or subsequent mailings, especially to those who may be interested but who may not have Net access.

You can turn some of the immense processing horsepower of your distributed Mind to the task of finding useful new metaphors for community, expression, property, privacy and other realities of the physical world which seem up for grabs in these less tangible regions.

And you can try to communicate to technically unsophisticated friends the extent to which their future freedoms and well-being may depend on understanding the broad forms of digital communication, if not necessarily the technical details.

Finally, you can keep in touch with us at any of the above addresses. Please pass on your thoughts, concerns, insights, contacts, suggestions, and, and most importantly, news of relevant events. And we will return the favor.


John Perry Barlow for The Electronic Frontier Foundation