For years, hundreds of students, tourists, and locals walked to Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts every day. However, in 1986, there were now some new, digital visitors to Harvard Square. Tucked away in a small house on Massachusetts Avenue was the proverbial “child” of husband-and-wife pair Brian Miller and Tess Heder: a bulletin board system (BBS) called Channel 1, receiving thousands of calls from around the globe each day. Many BBSs at the time were the creations of technology hobbyists who wanted to offer a forum for others to talk on. However, from the very beginning, the couple created Channel 1 as a purely commercial pursuit.
It all started when Miller, a clinical psychologist, dialed a BBS called Northern Lights in 1985 and “decided almost instantly that this was a business opportunity” (source). From that moment on, Miller and Heder went to work creating what would become one of the largest BBSs at the time. Channel 1 quickly became massive, offering “85 telephone lines, 2,500 message conferences, and over 30 Gbyte of files from a small house off of Harvard Square” (source). The prophecy that a BBS could be a good business for the couple would eventually become more than true; at its height, Channel 1 was making the couple over $250,000 per year off of the yearly subscription needed to access the BBS and its multitude of services.
The growth of the physical systems supporting the BBS and its online services quickly accelerated. An article in the Boston Globe described the inside of their one-story, four-room house as resembling a “Radio Shack warehouse,” with dozens of computers, modems, and phone lines(source). The mounting size of the BBS’s hardware eventually forced the couple out of their small house into a newly built house behind theirs, which they purchased with the money from Channel 1’s revenue.
A Newsweek article about BBSs described Channel 1 as offering “a shareware library, Internet newsgroups, linked bulletin boards, daily financial-market news and online games,” (source) similar to other BBS’s at the time. Channel 1 was a general-purpose BBS, founded to deliver “high-performance, quality-oriented BBS and online services,” (source) in the words of Brian Miller.
Not much is known about the audience of Channel 1, but, because of its size, all-purpose nature, and the audience of the Internet in general at the time, it can be assumed that most were 20-something or 30-something white men from America. There were hundreds of different sub-boards on Channel 1, of which little is known other than the fact that each harbored a small, tight-knit, and specific niche of the early internet. These forums attracted many individuals to talk about their various interests; users could discuss their favorite sports teams, the recipe for their grandmother’s pasta sauce, or the day’s stock market trends. People from all over the globe discussed religion, politics, alternative lifestyles, and more through these sub-boards daily. An example of one of these sub-boards was one called “Sexy Bald Captains”—most-likely a Star Trek-themed discussion board given that the name is a reference to the bald Captain Picard from the show. Trekkies would gather on this board to talk about the newest episode of The Next Generation, who their favorite character was, or what their perfect Star Trek episode would be.
However, as the BBS started to gather more and more attention from users, it also started getting attention from a slightly more powerful entity: the government. Massachusetts’ telecommunication tax laws were not yet equipped to handle large-scale BBSs like Channel 1, so the Massachusetts Department of Revenue decided to experimentally bill the couple “more than $150,000 in back taxes” (source) in 1993. This amount of taxes would have completely devastated the company. The couple decided to open a forum for discussing their contention with the state over these tax law changes, and users immediately logged into the board to “declare their devotion to Libertarian politics.” Some users even described the Department of Revenue’s behavior as “immoral, indecent, and evil.” Users of the forum banded together against what they viewed as government greed, displaying the amount of admiration they had for Channel 1 and the BBS’s system operators. In an interview, an investigative journalist described the situation succinctly:
The state of Massachusetts, in its infinite wisdom, has now decided to reinterpret the state’s tax laws on telecommunications to try to make it retroactively fit this company. The state is using this as a test case. The state has hit this company with a tax lien of more than $150,000. This is a small business, and this lien could shut this company down.
Here you have a media voice in Boston that is being threatened with silence, and it has gotten no national publicity at all. If the U.S. government or the District of Columbia government moved against the Washington Post with a major tax assessment in a clear effort to shut them down, we would be hearing about it.Patrick Clawson, (source)
The implications of a tax law of this kind, where every message sent over the BBS would be taxed heavily, were horrifying and far-reaching, and it threatened to end most of the BBSing happening at the time. There is no information on the aftermath of the threat from Massachusetts to the couple, but I assume that the actual amount of taxes that had to be paid was a lot less than the original $150,000 since Channel 1 was still operating after 1995.
The overall identity of BBSs at the time was that of freedom; the internet was a Wild West filled with open discussion on any topic of interest. This tax law was the antithesis of what BBSs stood for, and the push back from the community was tangible. The government wanted to stick their hands into the hobby of many thousands of Americans, but the BBSs, their system operators, and their thousands of users resisted.