Newsgroups get a new life

Seeking refuge from commercialism on the Web, more people are turning back the technological clock to rediscover the Internet's once-vibrant spirit of community.

They're going to Usenet.

And they're posting a lot. While it's difficult to monitor Usenet's active population, experts estimate its volume of data doubles every 8 to 12 months. Newsgroup visitors worldwide generate more than a half a terabyte of data daily, says one Usenet service provider.

Simple text-based posts account for the bulk of this content; but music, software, and movie files--including a large amount of copyrighted material--are posted as well.

Usenet isn't accused of facilitating piracy on the scale of some peer-to-peer networks, but neither are its users innocent. And some of their pirated file-swapping may eventually prompt some unwanted attention in Usenet's little corner of the Internet.

What Is Usenet?

A precursor to the eye-candy of the Web, Usenet is essentially a worldwide bulletin board consisting of more than 90,000 newsgroups. Each covers a topic, from antique cars to beanie babies, from MP3s to adult content.

Usenet entry is generally free (most ISPs offer at least limited access), and anyone can post messages. Some visitors grow discussion threads, while others trade files. No single entity owns Usenet, and severs around the world contribute to the whole.

Beginners often access Usenet through an e-mail program, such as Outlook Express. However, more experienced users recognize the value of a newsgroup reader such as Forte Inc.'s Free Agent or S & H Computer Systems' News Rover.

Despite recent improvements for newsgroup readers, however, Usenet can still be tricky to navigate, especially in comparison to the user-friendly Web. But its content is worth the hassle, say Usenet fans.

"We've gone through the glitz. People are reemphasizing the basics," says Ron Yokubaitis, chairman of Usenet provider Giganews.com. "As people mature in their [Internet] usage, they find out more about Usenet and what it offers," he adds. "As they get more sophisticated, they want more."

Steady Growth

Usenet watchers say it's clear that participation and message volume are growing, but the percentage of Internet users who visit newsgroups is steady. Depending on which expert you ask, the portion of surfers coming to Usenet has remained at 5 to 10 percent for years.

"The total volume of people on the Net is growing, so Usenet is growing," Yokubaitis says. "It's still a minority of more technically-minded people who can manage it."

In fact, few Internet research firms track usage. "It's not something I follow closely," says Lisa Allen, a Forrester Research Inc. analyst. "As more people come online it's not surprising that more people migrate to the nooks and crannies of the Internet."

Usenet doesn't interest most Internet companies, which don't see profit there, she says. "Community just doesn't generate much income." Her comments seem to support the theory that people visit Usenet to escape commercialization on the Web.

Usenet's Enablers

Companies most likely to profit from surging Usenet use are those that provide access to users frustrated by poor service from ISPs. Giganews.com, 100ProofNews.com, and others offer plenty of newsgroups and retain messages for as long as possible.

ISPs sometimes monitor what you download, limit the number of newsgroups you can visit, censor the groups they carry, and offer very limited message retention, says David Collins, a system administrator at 100ProofNews.com. His service gives uncensored access to more than 90,200 newsgroups with no download limitations, for $9 monthly.

Visitors range from people looking for MP3 and movie files to those who want to participate in a range of discussions, he says. Most are quite Internet savvy, and the majority have broadband connections, Collins says.

Hidden Treasures or Theft

Also profiting are makers of software Usenet readers, like S & H Computer Systems. You can download a full version of its News Rover reader for $30, and new customers at 100ProofNews can get a free custom version.

Traditional newsgroup readers make you subscribe to specific groups and download the headers for scanning, says Phil Sherrod, vice president of software development at S & H. News Rover is designed to make Usenet simpler through several search functions. One lets you scan all newsgroups for specific text, one searches for specific MP3 files, and another seeks out specific file attachments. Another feature automatically scans selected groups for specific content, he says.

NewRover is a boon to visitors seeking new songs and albums, which often appear on Usenet before they hit stores. Does such a tool essentially simplify piracy? Sherrod says his company doesn't condone the practice of downloading copyrighted material.

"We do not encourage piracy of anything. We have no control of what is posted to Usenet, nor is there a practical way to filter what is legal and what is illegal," he says.

Is Piracy a Problem?

Usenet providers sing a similar tune about the thousands of copyrighted songs available in newsgroups.

100ProofNews.com doesn't track what its users download, but the company discourages piracy, Collins says. "We warn them about copyright infringements, and we take steps so they can't post that kind of content." If a 100ProofNews.com customer posts something illegal on its servers, the company removes the material on request.

But since nobody owns Usenet--and people post from servers around the world--it's difficult to enforce copyright laws, says Bob Kruger, vice president of enforcement at the Business Software Alliance. The industry group is an outspoken foe of piracy. "It's very difficult to take action against newsgroups," he says.

Software piracy cost companies close to $11 billion in lost revenue worldwide in 2001, the BSA contends. The organization doesn't track piracy on Usenet in particular, but it suspects that piracy is growing there, Kruger says. Still, it amounts to nowhere near the volume of piracy that takes place elsewhere, and the BSA hasn't made Usenet monitoring a priority yet.

Nor does the BSA blame piracy on companies that provide Usenet access. "Frankly, we don't disagree with third parties who say it is not their problem," he says. "But if I were to identify a user hosted by an ISP engaging in this activity I might ask them to take action to warn them or terminate their account."

Usenet also isn't yet on the radar screen of the Recording Industry Association of America, which helped close Napster Inc. through litigation. Piracy on peer-to-peer networks remains its target. But the RIAA doesn't condone piracy anywhere.

"Making copies of a CD to give away or making music available on the Internet for others to copy is wrong and unlawful," says an RIAA spokesperson.

If the Usenet population keeps growing, this corner of the Internet may attract pirate-hunters. For the moment, it remains a haven for hobbyists of all types.

"You may not find somebody in your small town who shares your interest, says Yokubaitis of Giganews.com. "But you will on Usenet."

And Sherrod, the news reader vendor, notes, "The growth potential is enormous."

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