Usenet: Not dead yet

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

"If you remove the binary newsgroups and keep the rest -- and take care to not take feeds with misplaced binaries in them -- the resulting text-only service could be run with modest resources," says Nixon. "Verizon's Big 8-only service could probably run on one or two reasonable PCs. If you add in the rest of the non-Big 8 text groups on Usenet, it still wouldn't add enough to require a more complex infrastructure. Even given the service availability requirements of a major ISP, you'd be talking about thousands of dollars [for a text-only service] versus millions for a service with all the binaries."

Kathy Morgan, co-chair of the Big-8 Management Board, chimes in: "I seriously doubt if any of [the ISPs that have blocked or limited Usenet service] have cut their prices to make up for no longer offering news service. Any money previously spent on server maintenance and personnel is an increase in profits."

A legal mess

Of course, ISPs aren't the only means to access Usenet newsgroups. Because Usenet is actually a separate part of the Internet, it can be accessed through Newsgroup Service Providers (NSPs).

Curt Welch, who operates an NSP called NewsReader, offers another reason for why ISPs might want to exit the business of providing Usenet access. "At the same time as the binary traffic has come to dominate Usenet, it has made Usenet a sticky legal mess," he says. "It's a slippery slope for ISPs. Today it's kiddie porn, and tomorrow it may be the copyright people coming after you."

But that doesn't mean, says Welch, that there is a shortage of available access to Usenet. Many consumers who only need limited access to Usenet can use Google Groups, which provides free access to much of Usenet (though not the binary groups) and maintains an archive of messages that goes back to 1981. If you want more than that, says Welch, "There are probably hundreds of providers, of which I'm just one."

He explains that "on the text side, you can get access to all the great text content for [US]$10 or $20 a year, and that will continue." The binary side has become a very competitive business, says Welch, with the number of providers consolidating rapidly. In fact, many of the providers that had formerly sold bulk services to ISPs are now focusing on the consumer marketplace.

The Big-8 Management Board maintains a list of NSPs on its wiki. The AnchorDudes list makes a useful effort to track the mergers and combinations of trade names and services, according to Welch.

Because of the existence of these NSPs, the ISPs' changes aren't a major blow to Usenet, in Welch's view. "A lot of people may have lost access to Usenet and just haven't done enough research to find out how to get it back," he says.

But others feel that the ISPs' shift away from Usenet will likely have a negative impact on its future. Morgan says she expects the ISPs' actions will "further marginalize Usenet in general. A newbie who has never used newsgroups and doesn't know what they are is not likely to care enough or know enough to search for a competent NSP to obtain access."

Usenet may never again be what it once was. Still, if you look, you can find the old Usenet. "Small groups are as active as they've always been," Nixon says. "But the average age of the people posting is probably high, while the thing that keeps Usenet alive, what the younger people are doing, is binaries."

If the ISPs' actions really are driven by simple economics, it's those younger Usenet users who will be most affected. And there is evidence that that's the case.

"It is important to make the distinction that the ISPs are not blocking Usenet service from their users," says Nixon. "They are simply choosing not to provide it themselves. They are not preventing their users from obtaining it elsewhere and using it via the Internet connections they sell."

Slowing Usenet traffic or blocking access entirely may be a shoe that is yet to drop, but so far, that's something the regulatory agencies aren't permitting, as illustrated by the FCC's recent decision prohibiting Comcast from throttling binary traffic (in this case BitTorrent) on its network. With Usenet access readily available from NSPs, and with many ISPs still freely passing Usenet traffic, the text-based communities may be affected very little.

Usenet may be technology from the past, but despite the recent changes, it still has a future.

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