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Excite@Home Usenet death penalty lifted

Administrators stay the harsh sentence after the company begins scanning for users with misconfigured software exploited by spammers.

Excite@Home averted a Usenet "death penalty" today by reducing an excessive amount of newsgroup postings emanating from spammers.

The self-appointed administrators of Usenet, a computer bulletin board system containing topic-specific messages, have agreed to lift a proposed measure that would have blocked many newsgroup postings originating from Excite@Home servers.

The Redwood City, Calif., company said the unwanted messages have stemmed from spammers taking advantage of misconfigured software used by some subscribers. As a result, some spam, or junk email, appears to be originating from Excite@Home users but is actually generated by another source.

"Because of the rapid and positive response from the people at Excite@Home Network, the Usenet Death Penalty originally announced to go into effect at the close of business (Tuesday) has been lifted," Usenet spam tracker David Ritz wrote today in an email.

The harsh sentence caused Excite@Home to begin scanning its network last week for users with potentially misconfigured software. But the threat of a ban failed to ignite an outcry from its customers, a symptom of the dwindling use of Usenet. Once a venerable platform for online discussions, the influence of Usenet newsgroups has progressively declined, according to analysts and those in the industry.

Usenet administrators still could cancel messages that appear to be posted from Excite@Home users if the levels of abuse and lack of response return to their earlier levels within 30 days, according to Ritz's letter. Spam originating from Excite@Home has decreased considerably in the past few days, Ritz told CNET News.com.

An Excite@Home spokeswoman declined comment, saying the lifting of the death penalty and Ritz's letter speak for themselves.

Notwithstanding Excite@Home's prompt response, the power of Usenet, which sorts messages according to thousands of different topics, has slowly been chipped away. Users can now obtain personally tailored information by creating a customized Web portal, or signing up for an email list, among other means.

According to Dan O'Brien, an analyst at Forrester Research, Usenet remains a "deep techie location on the Web." But as the Internet becomes increasingly populated by less tech-savvy users, the population of newsgroup users has stagnated.

O'Brien noted that it is still difficult for many to access the Usenet through their browsers, compared with the relative ease of joining a Web-based chat group or bulletin board.

"It took too much effort to get into it as the Internet user base grew," O'Brien said. "And it's a rough-and-tumble world that a lot of people didn't want to participate in."

However, ISPs and Usenet advocates such as Ritz said newsgroup usage has increased at the same rate as overall Internet use.

ISPs such as Excite@Home and AT&T WorldNet say about 10 percent to 15 percent of their subscribers access Usenet. And according AT&T, the percentage has not changed over the years.

"It's been pretty much up and down, ranging between 10 and 15 percent," said Ritch Blasi, an AT&T WorldNet spokesperson.

Using Usenet is one thing. But trying to make money off of it has been a headache for most who have tried.

Companies such as Deja.com and Talkway claim their experiences are testaments to Usenet's declining appeal. Both companies initially structured their businesses around presenting newsgroup listings on the Web.

However, lackluster demand and flattening traffic eventually caused both companies to restructure their offerings. While Deja.com still uses newsgroups on its site, the company has turned to user-generated product reviews as its main business. Talkway has become a personal Web broadcasting company, allowing users to stream their audio and video feeds over the Internet.

Lisa Lahde, a Deja.com spokeswoman, said the company changed its strategy because newsgroups were not driving the business.

"Our numbers were flat for years," she said.

Fabrice Hamaide, chief executive of Talkway, also echoed Deja.com's conclusions. Hamaide said companies such as his initially bet that Internet users would want an easier way to read newsgroup postings. However, the growth of Web portals such as Yahoo, Lycos and Excite, which offer simpler avenues for discussion and community, have made Web-based newsgroup publishing nearly obsolete.

"Most people I know go onto Internet to use email, read news, shop online, then send greeting cards," said Hamaide. "But they don't go to forums where they don't know anyone and the user identity of someone you're talking to is 'Scarface23.'"

While some may find the Usenet to be useless, Net veterans still depend on the service as a way to share information.

For some, such as Peter Horan, who is disabled, Usenet remains still a crucial platform to communicate with similar people.

"Without the help of the members of the newsgroup I participate in," Horan wrote in an email, "I would certainly not be coping with my life as well as I am right now."

Earthlink also said roughly 10 percent of its subscribers are active Usenet users, a figure that has remained steady over time, according to company spokesperson Kurt Rahn.

Rahn added that despite the relatively low percentage, Usenet usage remains a popular service among Earthlink's subscribers. "Our members are very active in using Usenet, and a good percentage of them find it a useful tool."