Over the last few years, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and other organizations looking to eliminate the illegal swapping of digital media files have attacked the problem through the courts, publicity campaigns, and other means. But while they've managed to close down some peer-to-peer operations, and have successfully (and not so successfully) sued individuals who were uploading movies and music to the Web, there is one part of the Internet that has, until now, been operating under their radar: Usenet.
Usenet was once big -- as big, in its day, as blogging is today. In the 1980s, before the Web made the Internet the focus of everyone's attention, Usenet tied the messaging and communications of local BBS systems into the distributed networking of the Internet. The result was a mass of user communities (called newsgroups) devoted to almost every conceivable topic, from software support to alien spacecraft.
But as Usenet nears 30, it has become, instead, the conduit for a rising tide of binary-file traffic that threatens to swamp the Internet. While it's not easy to upload and download files from via the Usenet binary groups (large media files must be transferred in chunks and then stitched together again), savvy file exchangers with little respect for copyright law have found it a relatively safe place to operate.
All this activity isn't only a copyright issue for ISPs. The resources taken up by large numbers of people uploading large numbers of files is significant -- and one that many ISPs may no longer be able to ignore. In fact, in recent weeks, major ISPs have stopped providing open access to the hundreds of thousands of newsgroups distributed via Usenet. These actions have been driven by New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo's crusade against child pornography on the Internet. Cuomo's actions, in turn, may have given ISPs an excuse to cut back on their increasingly costly support for Usenet.
Usenet Isn't One Thing, But Many
As with anything that has been around as long as Usenet, and been so important to so many people, there's a great deal of folklore that's grown up around it, reflected in terms like "Big 8" and "The Great Renaming," "Netiquette" and "Never-ending September."
Usenet's technological underpinnings predate its association with the Internet, resting on dial-up-based store-and-forward e-mail BBS systems and UUCP protocols and programs. Although its name makes it sound monolithic, Usenet is perhaps best described as a huge, loose collection of informal information-exchange communities that have little in common beyond their naming convention and their reliance on the Network News Transfer Protocol used to manage Usenet messages.
The basic unit is the newsgroup, a threaded discussion devoted to a topic. Newsgroups are organized by topic into hierarchies. Google Groups, which provides access to Usenet, lists more than 1,000 top-level hierarchies. Many of these are named for a country or city, company or product. The Microsoft hierarchy, for example, includes 3,337 newsgroups, such as microsoft.public.mac.office.entourage, microsoft.public.scripting.vbscript and microsoft.public.outlook.calendaring.
Nine of these hierarchies are particularly important. Eight of them (comp.*, humanities.*, misc.*, news.*, rec.*, sci.*, soc.* and talk.* -- the so-called Big 8) are administered by a board of directors. The Big-8 Management Board administers the creation of new groups and the structure of the hierarchies with an eye to maintaining order and promoting the usefulness of the groups. The Big 8 hierarchies include about 3,000 newsgroups.
The Big 8 (originally the Big 7; humanities.* was added later) were created in 1987, when the explosive growth of Usenet and the proliferation of newsgroups forced a reorganization that came to be called the Great Renaming. It systematized the names and structures of the newsgroups to make it easier for system administrators to manage the groups they carried.
The ninth major hierarchy, alt.*, was created as a protest to the Great Renaming, and was specifically intended to provide a less controlled alternative to the Big 8. Fittingly, Internet folklore says the first three newsgroups created in alt.* were alt.sex, alt.drugs and alt.rockandroll.
Usenet had already developed its own culture and standards, often referred to as netiquette. "Back then Usenet was a conversation, and a fairly safe one. It was well behaved, pretty much everybody posted using their real names, and it was courteous," says Steve Yelvington, principal strategist at Morris DigitalWorks, a subsidiary of publisher Morris Communications Co. in Augusta, Ga. Back in the 1980s, Yelvington wrote software for his Atari ST so he could access Usenet and participate in a newsgroup for Atari owners. "Everybody read Brad Templeton's rec.humor.funny joke every day," he recalls.
Then came Never-ending September. Usenet had its origins on college campuses, which is where the computer networks were in the 1980s, and it went through an annual turmoil every fall as an influx of new student users learned the finer points of netiquette. "When AOL connected its users to Usenet in 1993, there was a sudden flood of people who hadn't read Emily Post," recalls Yelvington. Some Usenet veterans claim that the masses of new users who engaged in personal attacks, flame wars, fanboy diatribes and the like did permanent damage to Usenet standards of behavior -- hence the feeling that September 1993 never ended.
The next year, 1994, Usenet civility suffered even more when a husband-and-wife lawyer team, Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel, hit Usenet with the notorious "Green Card Lottery" spam. This first recorded example of large-scale commercial Internet messages was soon followed by a flood of spam.
"A lot of people were driven away by that, and they never came back, despite the fact that we won the spam war and basically fixed that problem," says Jeremy Nixon, a member of the Big-8 Management Board who formerly worked for newsgroup service provider Supernews.
Since 1994, of course, the Web has happened, and there has been less reason to go back. "Usenet is old technology, and as such, it's less pretty and it's harder to use," says Nixon. "You don't just click on it in a Web browser, or if you do, it's a lousy Google interface. Blogs, which are basically a re-invention of Usenet, look nice, and are easy to use and to get to."
The Web eclipsed Usenet, but it didn't extinguish it. Over the past decade, Usenet has gone in different directions. The Big 8 hierarchies have continued to march along the high road in a kind of comfortable obscurity, supporting communities of discussion in the Usenet tradition. When Usenet was talked about at all, it was usually because of the alt.* hierarchy, which has acquired an unsavory reputation as a free market for digital content with a provenance of questionable legality or morality. Over time, Usenet has become a major distribution platform for pornography, illegal media and broken software.