The Watchman of the Electronic Frontier

As the cyber-future creeps toward Houston, one group stands guard: EFH

Dapper in elegant suits worn with just the right tie, Edward Cavazos has the yuppie game plan nailed. He has a good job at Andrews & Kurth, a gleaming black Ford Explorer, a pleasant house in the Galleria area (with the good citizen's requisite "Clutch City" placard displayed in a front window) and a beautiful fiancee.

Stephen Nuchia, son of Houston Police Chief Sam Nuchia, also looks to be a main player in the middle-class dream, as does his wife, Liz. Owners of their own business, hard workers, solidly settled in the life of the city, the last thing they would appear to be is, well, radical.

Ditto personal injury attorney J. Stephen Ryan, Rockwell flight controller Carl Guderian and artist Melanie Mitchell. Good Houstonians all, none of them would seem particularly out of place at, say, an Imagine Houston gathering or a meeting of a local school board. But those aren't the particular civic concerns that have their main attention. Rather, their thoughts are focused on a future racing toward the city along electronic pathways. Board members of Electronic Frontiers Houston, they might be seen as something of a neighborhood watch committee in cyberspace.

Cyberspace is a term that, like the infobahn or the Net or e-mail, needs no explanation to the growing number of people who are computer literate and online, i.e. connected. For the unconnected, cyberspace is that unmapped region in, around and between computers. It's where things go when you send a message via modem. It's where you visit when you start browsing in such things as Bulletin Board Services. (The infobahn, incidentally, is the updated term for what Vice President Al Gore calls the information superhighway; the Net is the Internet, the central thread in an electronic web that allows access to a number of computer systems; e-mail is quite simply electronic mail.)

Cyberspace, for many, is the new American neighborhood. It's a neighborhood with a vigorous population and no clear-cut community standards. It's also a neighborhood that is largely unpoliced.

Not that this has particularly bothered anyone. Not, that is, until lately, when it became clear that cyberspace would one day be our space, whether we liked it or not. The item that brought cyberspace into the general consciousness is the Clipper Chip, a government-proposed bit of technology that would make it impossible (or at least extremely difficult) for people talking to each other on computer networks to do so in complete privacy. While the details of the Clipper Chip spin off into serious techno-talk, the basic question it raises is fairly simple: should people be allowed to scramble their computer messages so no outsider can read them, or should the government have a special technology for getting at those messages if given proper authorization by a court? In short, is there something special about cyberspace that requires new rules for wiretapping?

Suddenly, there was growing discussion of pornography moving via modem into private homes, encryption programs that could protect nuclear terrorists from detection, who owns ideas created in cyberspace, where cyber-chat leave soff and defamation begins -- all sorts of curious social, legal, even constitutional issues that it appeared nobody had been giving much thought to. Nobody, that is, except groups such as Electronic Frontiers Houston. Want some answers to your cyber-issues? Then come, says EFH, to us.

Serious and intense as an attorney should be, Edward Cavazos blends in with the downtown crowd, except for his enthusiasm, as he spends a lunch hour holding forth on the history of EFH, the history of computer law and where his views fit in with both.

Cavazos, who at 26 is still easy to imagine as the sort of Catholic schoolboy who got away with everything, is the front man for Electronic Frontiers Houston. Part of the reason for that is he knows how to talk computers in such a way that even the non-online can understand some of what's going on. Another part of the reason for that is he has a history of concern for computer issues that traces back to his days as a law student at the University of Texas.

Arriving in Austin and quickly hooking up to the various computer Bulletin Board Services there, Cavazos began to get hundreds of e-mail messages beginning, "I know you're a law student, could you tell me about" and then asking questions about everything from on-line anonymity to copyright issues. When Cavazos went to look up the answers, he frequently found there weren't any. His research finally ended up in book form, Cyberspace and the Law: Your Rights and Duties in the Online World.

In Austin, Cavazos also got involved in a court case that pitted a role-playing game company known as Steve Jackson Games against the Secret Service. The Secret Service had raided Steve Jackson Games because they thought an employee of

he company was corresponding electronically with someone they were interested in. Computers and computer discs were impounded, and an issue of computer law engaged. Cavazos was then working as a clerk for one of the law firms hired to defend Steve Jackson Games. Some of the funding for that defense came courtesy a group known as the Electronic Frontiers Foundation.

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