Wandering Thoughts archives


The problem with Usenet

There's recently been a little bit of fuss in the news about the New York Attorney General getting various ISPs to turn off the alt.* hierarchy on their Usenet servers, with a number of people are wondering how the ISPs were willing to cave in to this sort of pressure. My guess, based on what I remember from being fairly involved with a Usenet server up until a couple of years ago, is that ISPs were probably just as happy to have a good excuse to cut back on their news servers.

From an ISP's perspective, Usenet has a number of problems:

  • almost all of your customers don't use it.
  • almost all of the customers that do use it are only interested in the binary newsgroups.
  • the binary newsgroups have a huge daily volume. I believe that the last time I heard figures, several years ago, alt.binaries.* was around 500 GB a day and still growing.

    (The Wikipedia Usenet entry cites a figure of 3.8 TB per day as of this April, which is frankly scary.)

  • due to the volume, running a news server that gets a reliable full feed and keeps it for any length of time is quite demanding, as well as being reasonably expensive in hardware and bandwidth.

    (You need a reliable full feed because binaries are generally posted in multiple articles; if your server misses or drops one, the entire sequence is useless.)

  • adding to the problem, much of the volume is various sorts of spam that your customers definitely do not want cluttering up their nice binary newsgroups. Maintaining decent spam filters takes work and expertise.

(Also, allegedly the users that do use your Usenet server will complain vociferously if you don't do an excellent job of carrying a full feed.)

Given all this, it's no surprise that ISPs have been getting out of the Usenet game for some time, bit by bit; many have quietly outsourced it to specialist providers like Supernews or simply stopped providing Usenet entirely. This latest development is merely more noisy than usual. Removing all of the alt hierarchy is a little bit of overkill, but it's probably not like the ISPs care very much and handling alt.* has its own set of headaches.

Sidebar: why dropping alt.binaries.* is actually effective

Normally 'censorship' of this nature is ineffective, as the targeted group just relocates to some other forum, in this case some other newsgroup, and resumes their old behavior. This doesn't work on Usenet because it is very easy to recognize and drop binary postings in non-binary newsgroups, and tools to do it have been commonly available for over ten years now.

(One such tool is cleanfeed .)

tech/UsenetProblem written at 01:00:50; Add Comment

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