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USENET: Death of the Alt.* Hierarchy

The Usenet has been, and continues to be, a great source of information, where technologies that push product can easily be pushed aside using filters. There are more than 10,000 newsgroups on nearly every topic that delienates our human existence, all hierarchically arranged. The major hierarchies are known as “The Big 8”: comp.*, humanities.*, misc.*, news.*, rec.*, sci.*, soc.*, and talk.*.

The one hierarchy which has been the bastard child of the usenet has been the alt.* hierarchy. Like all technologies, they start off with good intentions. According to one follower of the Big 8:

The alt.* hierarchy was begun, in part, as a reaction against the management principles of what came to be known as the Big-8. It is an “alternative” approach to creating newsgroups

This meant that, in reaction to certain sites placing a “veto” on certain newsgroups and due to the political influence certain site maintainers had, why not make it possible for anyone to make any newsgroup they want, without the need for a vote? That was the idea behind “alt.*”

Most people who maintain USENET sites will freely admit that much of the alt.* hierarchy has become a moral and technological toilet. It carries nearly every nutty newsgroup bounded only by imagination, including groups no one has ever seriously posted to, as well as long-dead newsgroups that also have no posts (unless you count spam). Examples are

  • alt.swedish-chef.bork.bork.bork
  • alt.n (where “n” = monday, tuesday, wednesday, thursday, friday, saturday, sunday)

… you get the idea. This led the folks carrying these newsgroups to decide that: OK, maybe we’ll make the carrying of the alt.* hierarchy optional. Thus, the carrying of the alt.* hierarchy has been considered optional since its inception. I don’t know of any universities that carry it.

There is another problem with the alt.* hierarchy. It has been used as a vehicle for carrying child porn. If we censor ONLY these newsgroups, that would only mean that people can create others within alt.* that do the same thing. This is also the same for newsgroups that carry ISOs of complete software suites, mp3s of complete albums, and DVDs of movies. None of these activities are what I would call “legal”, and is easy justification for axing the whole hierarchy for reasons of freedom from liability for the ISP. That still leaves the “big 8”, which are mostly safe from illegal activity (unless it’s spam).

Verizon will be cutting alt.* from its offerings, and Time-Warner will no longer offer USENET at all later this month. It must be stated that alt.* carries a lot of worthwhile groups that are active, with their own FAQ maintainers. In light of this, many ISPs have taken the middle ground of not carrying the alt.* binary groups, leaving the text groups intact. What Verizon has done would be considered extreme by the standards of most ISPs.

There are hierarchies that are not part of the “Big 8”, having to do with gaining inexpensive (free) tech support, such as microsoft.*, corel.*, borland.*, linux.*, and so on. These are even more worthwhile, and I hope they are keeping them. They typically are relatively free of spam and have more wothwhile posts. There are knowledgeable people there who can answer your queries in a relatively short time.

Freedom of speech has historically been limited by the understanding that “freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.” For the Internet, the argument is specious, since it was taxpayer’s money that built it in the first place.

That means that even the attempt to privatize it to various companies (Time, Sprint, Verizon, AT&T, Bell, and so on) constitutes a form of corporate welfare. The questions seem to come down to: who really has the right to decide what newsgroups I can and can’t read? I suppose someone has to manage alt.*, but who gets to do this, and in who’s interest? These are really the questions that need to be explored.

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