Note: This is the first in a series of biographies of and interviews with the people who made things happen in Austin’s early internet history. H/T to William Leake of Apogee Search for the idea behind this series.
Prior to 1990, Steve Jackson was known as the the man behind Austin, Texas based Steve Jackson Games, publisher of the games Car Wars, Illuminati, and GURPS. Then, everything changed.
The United States Secret Service raided the offices of Steve Jackson Games, ostensibly because one of the company’s employees was the target of a hacker crackdown. Using a sealed warrant, they seized computer hardware and files. They took the computer that ran SJG’s popular Illuminati Online BBS was well as copies of a game in development, GURPS Cyberpunk, which one Secret Service agent referred to as an instruction manual on computer crime.
Steve Jackson Games files suit and won more than $50,000 in damages. The Electronic Frontier Foundation was formed to directly assist in the case, and to hopefully prevent future abuses by the government.
He helped to form EFF-Austin, which has since joined with a similar group in Houston to form Electronic Frontiers Texas.
These events are described in detail in Bruce Sterling’s book The Hacker Crackdown.
I first met Steve a few months after the Secret Service raid. I got to know him at a party we both happened to be at. It was the one year anniversary of the raid. Later, I served on the Board of Directors for EFF-Austin with Steve.
Brian Combs: When did you first get onto the Internet?
Steve Jackson: John Quarterman set me up with an account on a UT server so I could help maintain the Austin SF fan club’s database sometime in the early to mid 1980s; I’m not going to guess at the year. The BBS that the Secret Service shut down in 1990 had been online since 1986, but it was not part of the Internet; it was accessed by modem. Illuminati Online became part of the net in August 1993.
BC: What, if any, have been the far reaching impacts of your victory in SJG vs. SS?
SJ: I’m actually not the best one to answer that question – I’d refer you to the folks at the EFF, to start with – but, in general, it was a big flashing CAUTION sign, warning law enforcement that the e-mail stored on BBSs was protected by the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.
BC: What was the first Web project in which you were involved?
SJ: As in, literally, WWW? The web pages for Steve Jackson Games, www.sjgames.com, and Illuminati Online, www.io.com. In 1996, just setting up a website was a great adventure . . .
BC: Of what online project are you proud?
SJ: Independent invention of the blog; our Daily Illuminator is, as far as we have been able to find out, the oldest blog that’s still being updated. If anybody can beat November 16, 1994, let me know . . .
BC: What do you think of the focus the last few years on social media technologies and channels?
SJ: Human banality is a force stronger than anyone had ever imagined.
BC: Other than social media, what are the most important things happening online today?
SJ: Fraud and theft.
BC: What should we be watching for (or watching out for) on the Internet in the future?
SJ: Fraud, theft, and fiction masquerading as news.