Abstract: The KOM computer conferencing system was developed and used by a group of people at the Stockholm University Computing Center in Stockholm in the years 1976-1990. This paper, written by one of the people behind the KOM system, tells of how the system came to be developed and describes important occurences in the history of the system. The first version of KOM was operating in 1977, which means that KOM was one of the very first computer systems of the kind which is nowadays known as "social computing".
Keywords: Computer conferencing, Bulletin Board systems, KOM, PortaCOM, SuperKOM, EuroKOM, History, Social computing, Forum system.
Author's personal address: Skeppargatan 73, S-115 30 Stockholm, Sweden. Phone: +46-8-664 77 48 or +46-8-16 16 67. Internet mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Department of Computer and Systems Sciences, Stockholm University, Electrum 230, S-164 40 Kista, Sweden. Phone: +46-8-16 20 00.
In the beginning of the 1970-s, several researchers connected to the Datalogy laboratory at Uppsala University discussed the fact that computers mainly, at that time, were used as large systems used by large organizations to control people. Would it not be possible to design computer systems to aid ordinary people, to let them control the use of the computers instead of using computers to control ordinary people.
Two of the researchers wrote papers on these ideas, Jacob Palme and Torgny Tholerus, with titles like "The general public information system".
At this time, it was difficult to get other people to understand these ideas.
In the middle of the 1970-s, Murray Turoff, inventor of the Emisari and Eies computer conferencing systems, came to Sweden and made some presentations of his ideas. Palme and Tholerus listened to him, and were immediately caught by the ideas. Another listener to Turoff was Tomas Ohlin. A year later, Ohlin worked at the Swedish Board of Technical Development (STU). He used STU funds to finance a number of experiments with use of computer to aid ordinary people. One of the projects which he financed was to obtain a copy of the Planet-Forum computer conferencing system, which was installed at the Stockholm University Computing Center, QZ. Tholerus modified the program to use Swedish-language commands.
At the same time, the Swedish Goverment decided to split the Swedish Defense Research Institute (FOA), where Palme worked, into departments spread in six different Swedish towns. This, plus the practical experience of using Planet-Forum, made it interesting for FOA to fund the development of a new conferencing system. Tholerus was given the task, and the system was ready and started operation in its first version in 1978. Tholerus was at that time employed by Uppsala University, so the development of KOM was funded by a grant from FOA to Uppsala University.
The Swedish Data act said that all computer systems which stored personal information was to be controlled by the government to protect against invasion of privacy.
The act was written based on the idea that personal information are stored as records with typed fields, and said that the Data Protection Agency should control all use of such files, and that the agency should decide what kind of personal information should be allowed in these files.
FOA applied for permission to use of the KOM computer conferencing system to the Data Protection Agency. The agency decided to prohibit the system totally. The reasoning behind this was that since FOA wanted to store ordinary text, where any user can write whatever he or she wants, it would not be possible, according to the Data Act, to control what should be allowed and not allowed to write in the text.
Today, when computers are used for word processing more than for anything else, it is difficult to understand that something like this could happen. But it did happen.
FOA temporarily modified the KOM system so that no personal information was stored (all messages were anonymous). Thus, the system was not controlled by the data act, but of course such a system was not very acceptable to the users.
At the same time FOA negotiated with the Data protection agency on how to change the KOM system to mak it acceptable to them. FOA then made a new application for permission for KOM, in which FOA said that to positively say what was permitted to write in KOM would be impossible, but one could negatively define what should not be permitted. Thus, since the Data Act particularly stressed that computers should not, without very strong reasons, be asked to store personal information about illnesses, political and religious beliefs etc, such messages would be forbidden in KOM.
The Data Inspection Agency accepted this compromise, and permitted the system, but with several very humiliating restrictions. With these restrictions, the system was started again in March 1979. Thus, only researchers in the Stockholm area were permitted to use the system, even though a computer conferencing system is especially useful for communication across geographical distances. We did, however, not implement many of the restrictions required by Datainspektionen, and no one complained about this. Thus, we did permit people outside Stockholm to participate, we did not delete e-mail after one month, etc.
The ordinary users of the KOM system felt that the position taken by the Data Inspection Board was unreasonable. They claimed that since the Swedish constitution protects free speech, and says that free speech should especially be protected on subjects of politics, religion and science, the position taken by the board was an infringement of these constitutional rights. However, Sweden has no constitutional court, and the Swedish constitution contains a number of loopholes intended to allow the government to do things like what the Data Inspection Agency did, they had no chance of using this view to revert the decision.
In order to get the Data Inspection Board to reverse its decision, FOA financed a number of studies on the utility of computer conferencing, and on the risk for infringement of privacy. These were submitted to the Data Inspection Board. The board then decided that the Data Inspection Act simply could not be applied to text handling systems and used to control what people write in ordinary texts. Thus, after two years some of the humiliating restrictions were lifted. Left were however restrictions against archiving the messages for more than two years (compare to if libraries were forced to burn all books older than two years) and against searches for messages based on content. The Data inspection agency at this time reasoned that if there is no command for searching in the message texts, then these should not be regarded as "personal information" according to the Data act, and thus special rules regulating what people were allowed to write would not be necessary.
Two years later, the Data inspection illogically permitted search in the text of messages, but without imposing new restrictions on message content. All this shows that the law is unreasonable. It is therefore astonishing that the European Union now imposes a similar directive aw on all EU countries. Freedom of speech is thus not a democratic right on the Internet within EU!
The joint European research project Cost-11, financed by nine European countries, decided in 1979 to develop a portable (machine-independent) computer conferencing system. After an international call for tenders, the contract was given to the Enea software house in Sweden.
Enea claimed to be ready with the system in 1982. The system was then of very poor quality, and had too many bugs to be practically useful.
Cost-11 asked the University Computing Center in Stockholm (QZ) to maintain the system. A group there after much work got PortaCOM into a high quality product. However, the owners of QZ, three universities and the defense research institute, did not accept the cost of this development project. Aided by support from the Swedish Board for Technical Development, STU, a group of former QZ employees financed a small private company with the name Komunity Software to maintain and market PortaCOM.
The multi-billion dollar Esprit project of the European Community decided that they wanted to use an international computer conferencing system for exchange of ideas between researchers in Esprit projects. They selected the KOM system, and installed it at the University of Dublin. This became a very successful operation, using first KOM and from 1988 PortaCOM.
The usage of the KOM system at QZ increased by about 20 % per year, rising from a few hundred users at the start in 1979 to about 1700 regular users in 1987. KOM became a general tool for exchange of ideas and experience between mainly computer developers and users in Sweden. Usage of the KOM system at QZ has declined towards the end of the 1980-s, as more and more organizations acquire their own electronic mail or conferencing system instead of using the system at QZ.
The large number of computer people using the KOM system caused several of them to develop functional copies of the KOM system. In addition to PortaCOM and SuperKOM, there were the ABC club monitor, the Common Link (TCLL) computer conferencing system, the Computext system, the LysKOM system at Linköping University and the Permobas system, which all were more or less functional copies of KOM. Many smaller BBS systems developed also used the command set of KOM. The user interface of KOM became a de facto standard for computer conferencing in Sweden.
One of the several thousand regular users of KOM in 1985, a colourful researcher with many controversial ideas, made certain statements within the KOM system. For some of these, he was convicted for slander in a private prosecution. He was sentenced to make a small damage payment and to publish the court decision in full in the KOM system.
Two large Swedish media, one of the two public television channels and one large newspaper, criticised KOM mainly based on the slander case. They made scandal programs and articles on the system. The fact that the writings of one single of the KOM users was hardly representative for all the other thousands of KOM users was supressed by the media.
The group behind the KOM system, led by Torgny Tholerus and Jacob Palme, developed a new conferencing system called SuperKOM during the latter half of the eighties. A first version of SuperKOM started operation in the beginning of 1990. The main difference between KOM and SuperKOM is that SuperKOM supports a distributed data base, with automatic replication between servers, and where the distribution of the data base onto many computers is largely transparent to the users. SuperKOM never became a success, mainly because it did not have a graphical user interface.
In 1994, Torgny Tholerus developed a new version of KOM, named KOM95. The new system had a fully graphical user interface, with clients for Macintosh, MS-Windows and Unix-Motif.
In 1995-1998, the EU-funded project Web 4 Groups developed a conferencing system based on the ideas in KOM.
DSV developed KOM 2000, and KOM 2002, but very little development on these systems is done today. KOM 2002 supports multi-ingual forums, with machine translations of entries between languages. But this functionality is not at present used in any forum in production. It is easy to start a production multi-lingual forum if anyone has a need for this. Here is a test forum with machine translation of entries between German, Dutch, Greek, Italian, English, French and Swedish. Translation is at present only set-up from and to English.
Excerpts from KOM forums
Here are some excerpts from KOM forums in the 1980s (in Swedish).