Verizon offers details of Usenet deletion: alt.* groups, others gone

N.Y. state attorney general says he found child porn on 88 Usenet newsgroups. As a result, Verizon is deleting tens of thousands of them.

Declan McCullagh
Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
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Verizon Communications confirmed on Thursday that it will stop offering its customers access to tens of thousands of Usenet discussion areas, including the alt.* groups that have been a free-flowing area for discussions for over two decades.

Eric Rabe, a Verizon spokesman, said only a subset of discussion groups, or newsgroups, would be offered to customers in the future. In Usenet parlance, those newsgroups are called the big 8; they include complex procedures for newsgroup creation and deletion and even boast a formal management committee.

Rabe had told us earlier in the week that some newsgroups would be restricted, but didn't have the details until we spoke with him on Thursday.

No law requires Verizon to do this. Instead, the company (and, to varying extents, Time Warner Cable and Sprint) agreed to restrictions on Usenet in response to political strong-arming by New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat.

Cuomo claimed that his office found child porn on 88 newsgroups--out of roughly 100,000 newsgroups that exist. In a press release, he took credit for the companies' blunderbuss-style newsgroup removal by saying: "We are attacking this problem by working with Internet service providers...I commend the companies that have stepped up today to embrace a new standard of responsibility, which should serve as a model for the entire industry."

Usenet is a pre-Web technology that, for most of its history, relied on companies, Internet service providers, and universities to operate servers that would exchange messages posted by their users. Each server operator can choose what newsgroups they wish to offer. Today, some companies like Supernews, Giganews, and Usenet.com offer newsgroup access for a fee. (Unlike, say, mailing lists, Usenet has no central repository.)

What this means in practice is that, thanks to the New York state attorney general, Verizon customers will lose out on innocent discussions. Verizon is retaining only eight newsgroup hierarchies, even though over 1,000 hierarchies exist.

That means not carrying perfectly innocuous--and, in fact, very useful--newsgroups like symantec.customerservice.general, us.military, microsoft.public.excel, and fr.soc.economie.

The alt.hierarchy is even more extensive. In the discussion thread attached to our earlier story, one of our readers said: "This is ridiculous. I actually met my wife on alt.personals, 14 years ago... I still use usenet - there are a lot good discussions and a person can get answers to questions on specific topics pretty quickly. It's nice to have a decentralized place to hold discussions, one that is not beholden to a sysadmin to correctly run a forum, one that's free of blinking gifs and flash ads."

The only Usenet newsgroups that Verizon will continue to offer customers are the comp.*, misc.*, news.*, rec.*, sci.*, soc.*, and talk.* hierarchies. Customers will continue to be able to connect to other non-Verizon Usenet servers; no blocking is taking place.