Absolute Beginner's Guide to Usenet

3. What is Usenet

Opinion 1

Usenet is the most glorious, wonderful cacophony of unrestricted free speech the world has ever seen.

Opinion 2

Usenet is the loathsome spectacle of several millions of opinionated wretches venting their spleen upon each other with childish insults, foul-mouthed curses and semi-literate airing of prejudices.

Opinion 3

Usenet is a massive number of discussion forums on every imaginable subject in which interested parties can share their knowledge and views.

Opinion 4

Usenet is a great idea currently being destroyed by huge volumes of Spam pushing illegal Make Money Fast scams, pornographic websites and a hundred kinds of snake oil.

Opinion 5

All of the above.

The correct answer is, of course, Opinion 5. And much more.

To set the scene, here are a few quotes culled from the newsgroup news.admin.net-abuse.usenet :

"On Usenet nobody knows you're a dog - but everybody knows immediately if you're a complete idiot"

"There is no democracy on Usenet. There is only public opinion"

"Free speech in a private medium -- nothing guarantees it. People who want free speech on computers have it on their own computers."

"No off topic posts should be canceled for being off topic. This would be censorship and this would be bad."

"Spam is bad. Spam wastes resources. Spam is theft of service. Don't spam, period"

"Usenet is a cooperative arrangement. A group exists by the good graces of the various system administrators who agree to carry it."

So, then, what is Usenet?

In simple terms, Usenet is just a bunch of messages sent from one news server to another, tagged with an indication of which "newsgroup" they are posted to.

It exists because of a set of agreements whereby each agrees to take messages from the others ("peering"). Nobody can force anyone to accept another's messages. If a news admin has spent a great deal of their own money on installing lines, machines and software, then nobody can force them to use those lines and hard drives to download and store anything they don't want to.

Suppose I said to you, "I have this huge database here, 500 Gigabytes, and I insist you download it and store it on your computer until I or any of my friends need it, free of charge to us - oh, and by the way, there'll be another 500 Gb next week, and the week after that and it might rise to 1000 at some future point so if your drives aren't big enough to cope, go and buy bigger ones" - that sound like a reasonable proposition to you? I thought not - but it is exactly what the uninitiated demand from news providers.

"Ah", you say, "but I'm paying for that!"

Think again.

You may be paying your service provider for a service which includes a newsfeed, but you're not paying every other news admin in the world who makes that feed possible. If they decide to stop accepting/ sending messages to and from your server, your newsfeed is broken.

Simple, really.

So, in absolute terms, there is no such thing as the often extolled "right to say anything I want where I want" on Usenet. You have that right only for so long as the people whose equipment your words are passed through or stored on allow them to be passed through or stored there.

"Does that mean that anyone who doesn't like what I say can censor me?"

In theory, yes. In practise, most definitely not. A news admin who interfered with the flow of messages based on the views expressed in them would be quickly shunned by the rest of Usenet and would be out of business pretty rapidly. In general, the greatest defenders of freedom of expression on Usenet are the very news admins who have the power to curtail it - because they are the very people who built Usenet in the first place, who developed the RFCs which lay down the 'rules' for its operation and who keep it functioning.
If you don't trust them or like the way they operate, there is a simple solution - get a leased line, learn Unix, buy the machines and drives and become your own news server. Nobody can or will stop you. In fact, most would help and give you all the advice you'd need.

So who actually owns Usenet?

Fluffy owns Usenet. (Sorry, old Usenet joke.)

Nobody owns Usenet. But, as pointed out above, the lines and machines over which the messages are propagated and stored are owned by a large number of people.

For practical purposes, regard "Usenet" as refering to the simple tagging of messages with the name of the newsgroup to which they were posted. These are then added to the newsfeed which your news provider will download and add to their database of news messages. When you log on and request a particular newsgroup, all messages tagged with the name of that group will be retrieved for you to read. When you post a message, your newsreader program will add the name of the newsgroup to your message, together with a unique Message ID, and, once you post, it will be added to your news server's newsspool. Your message(s) will now be available to any other news server which has a reciprocal agreement ("peering") with yours.

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