Pulling the Plug on American UseNet

UseNet seems to have always been like Fight Club to many users – you don’t talk about Fight Club. The question is, is the first rule about targeting UseNet, ‘you don’t talk about targeting UseNet’?

Note: This is an article I wrote that was published elsewhere first. It has been republished here for archival purposes

There’s a very interesting report on NewTeeVee about ISPs in the United States either talking about or already ending their UseNet service. The report hits a lot of key point such as the key one of ISPs simply letting the New York Stat atourney general say that it’s because of child pornography that UseNet should stop being offered as opposed to the reality of ISPs simply not willing to invest money into the infrastructure.

According to the report, Time Warner has already announced that it will stop offering UseNet services altogether. Road Runner, one ISP in the US said that few users use UseNet, so they would discontinue it on the 23rd of this month. The article concluded with the following:

Phrases like this usually mean that the service became too expensive to maintain. It’s likely that a few users were generating a lot of bandwidth, causing problems similar to the ones ISPs are facing with BitTorrent, the obvious difference being that Time Warner had to pay additional money to Newshosting for each downloader. Of course, cutting access to Internet services doesn’t really make for good headlines these days, which is why Time Warner must have been relieved when it got some help from the NY State Attorney General. Time Warner Cable’s chief ethics officer, Jeff Zimmerman, told the press yesterday:

“Online child pornography represents one of the worst abuses of the Internet. We stand with Attorney General Cuomo and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in our commitment to helping curb the spread of this abusive content. Among the steps Time Warner Cable is taking (is) removing Newsgroups from our Internet service.”

That sounds a lot better than “Our customer’s TV show downloading habits just got a tad too expensive,” doesn’t it?

UseNet has had an interesting relationship with the average downloader. Premium services offer vast amounts of server space and long data retention times as well. The problem for many is that it costs money – an issue some would rather skip maxed out download speeds and no share ratio’s and go straight to BitTorrent, ED2K or Gnutella to satisfy their download needs. The aspect of paying has caused some debate amongst the file-sharing community such as the idea of paying for a service to get downloads. This generally gets too close to the idea of paying for P2P which is generally associated with scam sites. The general rule is, if you pay for P2P, you’re getting scammed. This is why some opted to use their ISPs free UseNet access for whatever is possible to get out of it. Even if the retention times are, say, less than a week, it’s better than no UseNet at all.

This leads to another related part of the idea of UseNet which generally is associated with the propaganda going against private BitTorrent sites (and also generally false claims perpetuated by the major copyright industry) – private BitTorrent site operators profit off of copyrighted content. This has been a line of attack by the copyright industry for some time against The Pirate Bay and, more recently respectively, against the former OiNK website. What does this have to do with UseNet? Simply put, unlike your average private BitTorrent sites, UseNet users getting premium services actually do have to pay to get in on such a deal. Realistically speaking, the money really goes towards maintaining the servers and handling the bandwidth.

The problem, politically speaking, is that ISPs generally offer free UseNet access because UseNet also provides one of the oldest forms of sending messages. If the copyright industry were to attack UseNet, saying that it’s sole purpose is to pirate content (which is also untrue), it would be extremely easy for ISPs to simply play the safe harbor card because they merely provide access – not control it. Debate would then close and it would be the end of story.

Two questions may arise from this: 1. What if ISPs all simply stopped providing free UseNet? 2. If they all stopped providing UseNet, what if the child exploitation excuse was used against premium UseNet providers? There’s a chance that this particular card could trump the safe harbor provisions for OSPs (Online service Providers) It would be a lot easier to target an obscure company (obscure to the masses that is) than it is to target one of the major ISPs in the country if one were to set aside money issues.

Given that there are a number of users using UseNet to download media through the Alt hierarchy, there would no doubt be industry backing to try and ban the Alt. hierarchy which is where most of the “interesting” posts happen. If at least a good chunk of this theory were to ever come to pass, these events could very well set the wheels in motion for some interesting legal battles related to UseNet in the future – a lot of which centering around the question of ‘what can trump safe harbor?’. Again, we should stress that this is merely worst case scenario theory we’re talking about.

A few additional things to consider:

– The MPAA has gone after NZB indexing sites in the past
– Comcast and other ISPs have engaged in throttling practices with BitTorrent among other protocols
– In spite of safe harbor in the DMCA, ISPs in the US have started warming up to the idea of policing their networks regardless
– In spite of the FCC ruling, the Broadcast Flag has recently made a return in a way that seems to circumvent the ruling anyway (whether it was legal or not is in dispute)

Naturally, there are users who consider UseNet to be one of the (if not, the) safest ways to get content in the first place and any passing threat would be regarded as little more than theory – then again, many thought OiNK would never get shut down either. The difference is that UseNet has been around a number of e-lifetimes longer than OiNK.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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