Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR) may or may not still exist. It’s been on its last legs as a formal organization, though some of us still converse over its mailing lists and it’s not clear to me in the slightest that if it disappears as a formal organization we should call it dead. Ideas and missions can survive the organization that spawned them, after all.
So, formal organization or not, you shouldn't be surprised that there continues to be a CPSR “activists” mailing list where we periodically chat about issues. And it was on that list that we were recently discussing an inquiry that Richard Stallman had circulated, asking if anyone knew whether there were “any other campaigns for computer users’ freedom prior to [the free software movement, started in 1983].” He said he was wondering whether perhaps the free software movement was the first such campaign. Long-time CPSR member Paul Hyland offered these remarks on the matter:
From: Paul Hyland
Subject: When was the first campaign for computer users’ freedom?
Well, if CPSR qualifies under his definition, then it predates the free software movement by two years. Even considering its original mission concerning computers and weapons, the organization existed to counter the use of computers to project power via weapons (of mass destruction and otherwise), and given that just war is arguably rare, then we fought the application of computers to support unjust power. Over the years, we simply expanded the scope of the applications we addressed.
I wrote a response to Paul on that same forum and got a request from someone that I re-post my remarks publicly for general reference. It seemed a good idea, so I’m doing that here (with slight editing to correct some typos and hopefully make a couple of sentences clearer):
From: Kent Pitman
Subject: When was the first campaign for computer users’ freedom?
I wanted to underscore Paul’s remarks, and expand a bit. I think it’s also significant that CPSR, while it raised alarm bells about SDI, etc., came to embrace not just a wide range of concerns but a wide range of points of view about those concerns. That is, CPSR is not just a single political party.
For all its talk about “freedom,” and even some good work in some areas, I find the so-called free software movement’s co-opting of the unqualified English words “free” and “freedom” annoying. I recognize and respect Stallman’s interest in that area, but even as there’s power in what he’s done it’s also partisan and divisive. And it claims, quite ironically, a sort of informal “trademark” on an inappropriately narrow use of the terms “free” and “freedom,” leaving less room for alternate yet legitimate uses of those terms.
Also, as many but not all on this list may know, the world of computers was very different back in the 70’s and 80’s than now, so what it would even mean to talk about “computer users” was a little odd. It’s always been my understanding that both Apple and Microsoft were effectively movements to empower individual freedom by putting computing in the hands of individual human beings.
Personal computing seems every bit as important to freedom as a movement that is singled out merely for its self-important use of “freedom” in its name. The marketing push of these technologies could be argued to be a push for freedom--just look at the 1984 Apple ad, which certainly had an internal effort afoot more than one year in advance of the 1984 rollout, so unless you want to draw the line of eligibility at publication of the ad campaign, ignoring the work leading up to that, even Apple predates free software and offers a specific vision of freedom (admittedly one in apparent strong conflict with Stallman’s view of freedom). But I bet Gates would defend the commercial sale of DOS as a campaign for freedom, even if a little nerdy and less artsy, and it was clearly pre-1983. Frankly, every home hobbyist computer of any kind back then was a campaign for freedom.
And in the world of networked computers, the MIT Lab for Computer Science had a project within it, for example, to allow “tourist class” users on its computers. All four MIT ITS computers (MIT-MC, MIT-AI, MIT-ML and MIT-DM, or sometimes just MC, AI, ML and DM, but we didn't yet have or need domain names for computers with dots in them) allowed “T” affiliations for users, meaning they were non-sponsored “tourist” people who just happened to have access to the net and yet were allowed to create their own accounts and to log in and use the computers. That created a whole space in which people could become computer users who otherwise would have had no access, and it certainly predated the free software movement.
I know in the MIT-MC arena (where MACSYMA was maintained) I began as a tourist user and switched at some point to working on MACSYMA and being a legitimate part of the research program. I also volunteered time along with several others to attempt to manage the tourists in an orderly way and to seek some sort of legitimacy for them against probing questions from people questioning whether such people should be allowed to use computers funded by the government. (Their government, by the way. The people’s government. The US government.) The ITS computers had probably more tourist users than real users on the timesharing system we used.
You might say it was just one machine (the plan to make these users quasi-official really only applied to the tourist class users on MC) but on the ARPAnet, the Internet predecessor of the day, the machines were finite (just a couple hundred) and enumerable (we knew them by both name and number), not like today where machines are so many as to be veritably uncountable and the actions of any one machine are virtually irrelevant. So it doesn’t matter that your iPod (thanks for that freedom, Steve Jobs and Woz) probably has more power on it than the AI Lab and the Lab for Computer Science combined had in those 4 ITS machines, but back then just speaking of 4 machines was like speaking of 1% of the entire ARPAnet.
Even the existence of the ITS machines at all was quite an experiment in freedom. Does that qualify as a “campaign”? The choice of that word seems narrow. Does someone have to make a campaign to contribute to society in the way campaigns contribute? As to how those machines were about freedom: There was no file security of any kind. Any user could at any moment read anyone else’s files or even delete them. The operating system command to show a mail file took an argument of a user name, so anyone could read anyone else’s mail. Users could spy on each other’s screens. It was a different world, a quite open and free world, a social world (although we didn’t really have that terminology then). Lots of collaboration happened there. Stallman was part of that world, by the way, but not its center. Emacs (based first on TECO, not yet Lisp) originated in that world. Users (including me) made and contributed libraries.
Pardon the possibly excessive MIT-centric view of the world there. It’s just where I sat at the time and it’s the world I saw and can relate. There may be similar stories from elsewhere, and my point is to create a conversational space that admits other such views where I feel like the conversation might have otherwise seemed to exclude them.
Anyway, as Paul’s remarks imply, in that proto world, this question in the subject line is a little messy to interpret because it implies questions of what constituted a campaign, of what constituted a computer user, and of what constituted freedom, etc. If all that’s asked is “who first conceived of themselves as doing specific acts under a banner that had ‘freedom’ in bold letters” you get a different answer than if you dig around for the real history of contributions in thought or action that merely implicate freedom, I suspect.
As an example, the ACLU was probably doing work in that time which was critical to the freedoms we commonly understand as applying to computers. Do they count? Are they left out because they sought to protect rights in a broader venue that merely included computers? It was a common question in the early days whether computer stuff was a kind of activity and I think it ultimately came to be seen as a venue where the ordinary activities of mankind play out, just like in real life. In that regard, all the politics and freedoms of computers really predate the actual deployment of computers and now that we have computers we just have a larger landscape in which those politics and freedoms are played out. So you could regard the rights afforded by the Constitution to have been the first campaign for computer freedom in the sense that the founders of the US certainly intended those rights to extend into whatever space mankind created for its endeavors.