Usenet: Not dead yet

Major ISPs are cutting off access to Usenet communities. But that doesn't mean we're witnessing its final years

(Time Warner, Verizon, Sprint, AOL and Comcast are the top five ISPs in the U.S., with an aggregate share of more than 50 percent of the market. Sprint is not an ISP, although it does provide Usenet access to some wireless customers. AOL was cited by Cuomo even though it stopped providing Usenet access for its customers in 2005.)

The actions taken by the ISPs in response have varied widely. Time Warner Cable quickly stopped offering Usenet access altogether. Other companies took a more surgical approach: AT&T announced it would cease offering its customers access to the alt.binaries.* hierarchy, while Sprint said it would drop the entire alt.* hierarchy. Verizon went further, announcing that it would continue offering its customers access only to the so-called Big 8 hierarchies. Comcast hung back through the summer, but finally announced in late September that it, like Time Warner, would amputate Usenet access entirely.

However, even though Cuomo's actions may have targeted child porn, there is some doubt as to whether this was the only thing motivating the ISPs to drop large portions of Usenet access. Significantly, while many of the responses to Cuomo's child porn initiative involved curtailing access to Usenet, Cuomo never attacked Usenet, according to the Big-8 Management Board's Nixon.

"Other providers were contacted by the attorney general's office before any of this ever hit the news, and quietly complied with the request. The only reason it ever became a news issue was because some ISPs used it as an excuse to cut their Usenet service," says Nixon.

Antiporn -- or antibinary?

Although there has been speculation that equated the ISPs' changes with censorship, Nixon doesn't think the issue is one of free speech. It is very expensive to provide Usenet service, he says, and ISPs aren't making any money on it. "When the New York Attorney General came knocking, they saw it as an opportunity to drop a money-losing service while shifting the blame elsewhere," he says.

Today, there are two sides of Usenet: text and binaries. The text side of Usenet is dominated by the Big 8 and other widely read hierarchies (like k12.* for the education community). But as active and important as text newsgroups continue to be, they represent only the smallest fraction of the resources devoted to Usenet. It's the binaries -- everything from pornographic images to illegally posted movies -- that chew up most of the resources devoted to Usenet.

"Almost all of the resources devoted to Usenet are consumed by the binary groups and the users of those groups," says Nixon. "If you said 99 percent, you would still be understating it. However, if you further break down the binaries, the biggest usage of bandwidth is nonporn video content, followed by music and software. Pornography is a relatively small portion of it. Years ago, most of the binaries on Usenet were porn. Not anymore."

This has resulted in a major change in the cost to ISPs of providing Usenet access to their customers.

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