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Online censorship — in 1985

September 25, 2013 0 Comments


Mike Godwin (yes, that Mike Godwin) raised a question over on Facebook about early use of the internet here in the United States. I knew that I had been on the ‘net (for e-mail and USENET purposes) in the early to mid-1980s, and so did some Googling to see if any traces of that still existed. They do, though only a few. I found one of them to be interesting.

In that same timeframe — starting in 1984 or so — I ran a FIDO bulletin board system off my home computer. (Think of a BBS as a text-only website that only one person can connect to at a time.) I was living in San Diego at the time and got word through the tech grapevine that the California State Legislature was looking at passing a law that would hold BBS operators liable for the contents of posts left on their boards — anticipating the parallel issue that would arise a decade later as to whether web site operators were “publishers” or “distributors”. Needless to say, we in the tech industry (and especially in the tech publishing industry — I wrote for BYTE Magazine at that time) were very concerned, especially since the date for the hearing on the bill was just a few days away. A lot of us talked about showing up for the hearing, calling the relevant legislators, and so on. I actually plunked down money for a round-trip ticket to Sacramento and went to see what I could do.

My report of that trip is still online┬ánearly 30 years later.┬áI wrote up the report and sent it out via FIDONet. Here it is, still formatted as it was in FIDONEWS. It is interesting to see how the same issues — particularly regarding credit card and identity theft — are still with us today.

FIDONEWS — 29 Apr 85 00:00:50 Page 4

The following information deals with California Senate Bill
1012, introducted by Sen. John Doolittle (R-Citrus Heights).

SB 1012: An act to amend Section 502 of the Penal Code,
relating to computers.

Under existing law, the malicious access, alteration,
deletion, damage, destruction or disruption of a computer
system, network, program, or data is a public offense and a
felony. Existing law also sets forth a separate category of
public offenses involving the unauthorized access to a
computer system, computer network, computer program, or
data, punishable as specified, depending upon whether there
is injury.

This bill would add a new category of offenses involving the
unauthorized placement of personal or private information on
a computer bulletin board, as defined. A violation of this
offense would be classified as a public offense punishable
in the same manner as unauthorized access is punishable
under current law.

SB 1012 would add the following paragraphs to Section 502 of
the Penal Code:

(a)(2) “Computer bulletin board” means a service, accessed
through the use of a computer, for the storage or
dissemination of information to the public.

(e)(1) Any person who knowingly places a telephone number
or address not listed in a public telephone
directory, personal identification number, computer
password, access code, credit card number, debit
card number, bank account number, or other personal
or private information of another on a computer
bulletin board or otherwise makes the information
available electronically to the public without the
prior written authorization by the owner of the
information is guilty of a public offense.

(2) Any owner or operator of a computer bulletin board
who knowingly permits the maintenance of a telephone
number or address not listed in a public telephone
directory, personal identification number, computer
password, access code, credit card number, debit
card number, bank account number, or other personal
or private information of a person other than the
owner of the information on a computer bulletin
board or otherwise makes the information available
electronically to the public, once having been
notified that it is private information, without the
prior written authorization by the owner of the
information, is guilty of a public offense.

FIDONEWS — 29 Apr 85 00:00:53 Page 5

History of SB 1012:

07 Mar 1985 Introduced by Sen. John Doolittle
16 Apr 1985 Amended by Sen. Doolittle’s office
Passed unanimously by the Senate Judiciary

Steps yet to come:

1) Approval by the Senate Finance Committee
2) Approval by the entire Senate (majority vote)
3) Introduction into the Assembly
4) Approval by two Assembly committees [I’m not sure if it
must also be approved by the entire Assembly]
5) Resolution of discrepancies (if any) between the Senate
and Assembly versions
6) Signature by the Governor
7) Becomes law six months (I believe) after signature

*** My involvement in all this ***

I learned of this bill Sunday (14 Apr 85) through two
different BBS messages, discovering that it was to come
before the committee on Tuesday (16 Apr). I immediately
sent a letter (via MCI Mail) to Sen. Bill Lockyer (Chairman
of the Senate Judiciary Committee) expressing my concern
over what I had heard about SB 1012. On Monday (15 Apr), I
spend a good part of the afternoon on the phone, talking
with staff people in the offices of all the members of the
Judiciary Committee and (again) registering my oppposition
based on what I knew. In the process, I talked with Ted
Blanchard in Sen. Doolittle’s office (Doolittle is also on
the committee); Blanchard was very helpful and, when he
found out I was planning to fly up to testify against the
bill in committee, ask me to stop by and work with him on
the wording. I agreed. I then spent the rest of the
evening preparing formal letters of oppostion for each
member of the committee.

I flew up late Tuesday morning and spent an hour or two
delivering the letters to each committee member (or, more
precisely, to their secretaries). I then met with
Blanchard, who was understanding of my concerns and frankly
ask me to sit down and help him rewrite the bill. We were
later joined by Don Ingraham, assistant D.A. from Alameda
County [Oakland], and another person, a consultant from the
State Office of Information Technology. We then spent a few
hours hammering out different changes in the bill. Ingraham
was very sympathetic towards the vast majority of BBS’s and
did not want wording that would allow harrassment of those
sysops. He just wanted something that would let him nail
(or, at least, threaten into closing down) the “bastard
boards” that publish lists of credit card numbers, corporate
computer access codes, and the like, which he currently
can’t touch under existing law. [Point of interest: while
he was obviously trying to be “professional” by not
criticizing other agencies, it became clear under repeated

FIDONEWS — 29 Apr 85 00:00:56 Page 6

questioning that he thought the Tcimpidis arrests should
never have taken place, and that the L.A. City Attorney’s
office had made a *big* mistake (my words, not his).]

The major changes in wording came in paragraph (e)(2),
dealing with sysops. The original bill had the phrase
“knowingly permits the placement” (instead of “maintenance”)
and did *not* have the clause, “once having been notified
that it is private information”. As it was, Ingraham felt
that the original wording would have put the burden of proof
on the D.A., not on the sysop, but we all agreed that these
changes benefitted both the sysops and the D.A.’s, since (1)
the sysop could not be held liable unless someone pointed
out the existence of the message and the sysop took no steps
to remove it, and (2) the D.A. can get a cleaner case when
the sysop *is* guilty by being able to show that (a) the
sysop was notified, and (b) the message was still up
sometime later. Other, more minor changes were or had been
made, such as the addition of the phrase “not listed in a
public telephone directory”.

The bill (with the modifications) came before the Judiciary
Committee around 5:30 p.m. No opposition came forward (I
had agreed not to oppose the bill as modified), and it was
passed unanimously. As mentioned above, it still has to go
through a number of committees in both houses, and has to
pass by majority vote in (at least) the Senate before
becoming law.

I still have some reservations about the bill, which mostly
center around two issues: first, the interpretation of the
phrase “personal or private information”, which is a little
too open ended for my tastes, and second, the interpretation
of the word “maintenance”, in other words, just how quickly
the sysop must delete an offending message once he/she has
been notified that it is “private information” to avoid
being guilty of “maintaining” it. However, Sen. Doolittle’s
office appears to be very eager to get feedback from the BBS
community, and we may be able to get more acceptable
language into it. There is still a long road ahead before
SB 1012 becomes law.

I suspect that I may get some flack from some of you out
there in BBS-land for working with Doolittle’s office to
modify the bill rather than taking a die-hard stand against
it. My response: go fly a kite. *I* was there; you
weren’t. I spent nearly $200 out of my own pocket to fly up
to Sacramento and back, so that I could have some say in the
bill. And that doesn’t count the cost for an hour or two of
prime time phone conversations between San Diego and
Sacramento. You know how many other people showed up, out
of all the concerned, outraged sysops and users? None.
Zero. Zip. Peggy Watt, formerly of InfoWorld and now with
CommunicationsWeek, was there, not to change or protest the
bill, but to cover the hearing, but she was the only other
computer-type person to appear. I can’t take credit for all
the changes made–the “public telephone directory” addition

FIDONEWS — 29 Apr 85 00:00:58 Page 7

came as a result of a phone call on Monday by Mark Welch–
but I can sure take credit for the rest.

Furthermore, had I refused to work with Doolittle’s office
(and he and his staff were by no means the ogres pictured in
some of the BBS messages I saw) but had just tried to oppose
the bill in committee, I probably wouldn’t have gotten
anywhere. You see, when the bill finally did come up, not
one single member of the Judiciary Committee said anything
to oppose it. This suggests that very few of you took the
time to find out who the committee members were (as I did)
and to call or visit their offices (as I did).

In short, if you didn’t make some real effort to change the
bill or block its approval by the committee, then you have
no right to harp on me and my efforts. And if you’re still
not satisfied with the bill, well, there’s still a lot of
time left to change it. Just pick up the phone and start
dialing. Ted Blanchard, in Sen. Doolittle’s office, can be
reached at (916) 445-5788. Or, if you prefer the mail, you
can write him c/o the Sen. Doolittle, State Capitol,
Sacramento, CA 95814. And if you still don’t do anything,
then you had better be prepared to live with what you get.

My apologies if I sound a tad defensive, but I was irritated
by the tremendous lack of action on the part of the BBS
community, and I was frankly scared at what would have gone
through had *I* not spent the time and money. I’ll be
damned if I’m going to take any guff for doing *something*
when no one else was willing to do much of anything.

By the way, while I was up there, I got a list of *all*
bills currently floating around the capitol dealing with
computers. A number of them also have implications for us.
Maybe we’d better wake up and make sure that our interests
are represented there on a regular basis. If I can figure
out how to afford it, I may start trying to make monthly
visits to Sacramento to work directly with the people making
the laws. Some of you might consider doing the same.

Nothing like a close call to get one excited, eh?

Bruce Webster/BYTE Magazine
Arpanet: bang!crash!bwebster@nosc
uucp: {ihnp4 | sdcsvax!bang}!crash!bwebster
CompuServe: 75166,1717
MCI Mail: 138-5892
Fido #87: (619) 286-7838 (sysop)


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About the Author:

Webster is Principal and Founder at at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor for the BYU Computer Science Department. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at 303.502.4141 or at

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