On March 1, 1990, the US Secret Service executed a search warrant on Steve Jackson Games, a game and publishing company in Austin, Texas, and took its computers and floppy disks. The government alleged that an employee had stolen proprietary information from Bell South, a telecommunications company (now part of AT&T), and posted it on Steve Jackson Games’ bulletin board system. The government also claimed that GURPS Cyberpunk, the employee’s forthcoming game book for cyberpunk role-playing, encouraged computer crimes.

The news sparked immediate outrage among users of online bulletin boards, the era’s equivalent of social media. Calls to action spread. Impassioned parties began to build coalitions and fundraise. Then, on July 10, 1990, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., software developer Mitch Kapor and Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow announced the creation of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) to protect people’s rights on the Internet, or “electronic frontier.” It would go on to achieve major legal victories that shape how each of us uses the Internet, our mobile phones, and the software that now drives our workplaces and provides access to music, video, news, work, and drivers. It would usher in an ecosystem of nonprofits, activist efforts, and digital rights organizations. And it would become an anchor institution of what we now know as digital civil society.

EFF launched with big names and a fair amount of bravado. It had important early successes, including the countersuit it brought against the US government on behalf of Steve Jackson Games and a Supreme Court decision that declared software code protectable free speech. EFF’s history tracks an important trajectory from an electronic frontier to an age of digital dependence. Its framing of people’s rights in cyberspace shaped how the masses got online and what they experienced when they arrived.

Today, we digital dependents use tools that EFF’s work has shaped. I first found EFF in the mid-1990s, after blogging for several years. I did much of my posting in cafés, surrounded by other people’s sticker-festooned laptops. Over time, I kept noticing one sticker in particular, “Protect Bloggers’ Rights: EFF.” “What’s EFF?” I wondered. Soon enough I realized that, yes, I was interested in my right to publish without government surveillance. Perhaps you’ve attended a “tech safety” workshop, where you learned to photograph protestors so you capture only the backs of people’s heads. Maybe you’ve even convinced your board of directors to choose an encrypted messaging app for their communications (if so, good for you for seeing the intersection between information security and good governance). Each of these domains—from online publishing to encryption to digital and physical security—is shaped by a long run of legal activism. The core issues at stake run from intellectual property (IP) to constitutional rights to expression, association, and privacy. EFF sits at the center of this history.

Read the full article about the history of digital civil society by Lucy Bernholz at Stanford Social Innovation Review.