The first rule of Usenet is, you don’t talk about Usenet.

Careful observation of that rule has allowed Internet newsgroups to avoid getting involved in the entertainment industry’s freakish litigation war on its customers. Now a new lawsuit suggests that the RIAA can’t stand it any more.

It’s time to talk about Usenet.

Internet newsgroups predate virtually everything on the Internet. Using specialized software, you can display messages posted in “newsgroups,” with each newsgroup devoted to a particular subject matter that is more or less observed by the people posting messages. Anyone can read and post messages in any newsgroup; most are unmoderated.

Some newsgroups are very active, with hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of messages posted daily. Some were created years ago and remain on the list even though they are completely dormant. There is a rough organization to the groups – the “sci” (science) category contains newsgroups named “sci.math” and “sci.physics,” for example. There are newsgroups for every interest, hobby, profession, religion, sport, everything you can think of and oh so many things that would never occur to you.

There are currently over 107,000 newsgroups.

The newsgroups contain text messages, and only text messages. But years ago some clever technology arrived that permits any kind of file to be converted to a text message and posted to the newsgroups; the software at your end then converts it back to a picture or a PDF or a music file or a program.

The architecture of Usenet is unlike anything else. It is global and decentralized. Servers run all over the world; basically, each one holds all the contents of Usenet and forwards new items and changes to all the other servers, in a constant flow of data in all directions.

At one time, virtually every ISP maintained its own Usenet servers and offered free access to Usenet to its subscribers. As the volume of traffic on Usenet grew, many ISPs did not want the burden of maintaining the huge servers, so they began leasing Usenet access from several large global companies – primarily, Supernews, Giganews and From Wikipedia:

“A news server is one of the most difficult Internet services to administer well because of the large amount of data involved, small customer base (compared to mainstream Internet services such as email and web access), and a disproportionately high volume of customer support incidents (frequently complaining of missing news articles that are not the ISP’s fault). Some ISPs outsource news operation to specialist sites, which will usually appear to a user as though the ISP ran the server itself. Many sites carry a restricted newsfeed, with a limited number of newsgroups.”

Windows has built-in software for Usenet. You’ve heard of it; it’s Outlook Express (and Windows Mail on Vista). It’s terrible, but it works for text messages.

But that’s not what Usenet is about.

A flood of music, movies, and pornography is posted to Internet newsgroups every day. The volume is staggering – terabytes of data arrives daily. So, for example, a subscription to Giganews, a license to use Newsleecher and its “Supersearch” service, and a fairly steep learning curve opens up access to a constantly-changing vault bursting with music and movies.

Late last week the RIAA sued, one of the larger Usenet services. Here’s another article about the lawsuit. has some intemperate language on its web site, boasting that its service “gives you access to millions of MP3 files and also enables you to post your own files the same way and share them with the whole world.”

The fear is that a victory over a company making overbroad statements will lay the groundwork for pursuing the hundreds of universities, ISPs and global companies offering Usenet access. Newsgroup traffic would be difficult to control and has obvious non-infringing uses, but that doesn’t mean the RIAA can’t disrupt the established patterns and shut off access through some of the current providers. At this point we hardly need more evidence to realize the RIAA is clinically insane and capable of anything.

The RIAA deeply believes that the battle to protect copyrights is the most important issue facing Western civilization. Make sure you take a moment to watch this anti-piracy video, which dramatizes the depth of their commitment.

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