Kiddie porn agreement will delete large portions of Usernet from ISPs' servers

Per a recent child-porn blocking agreement with the New York Attorney General’s Office, Verizon announced Thursday that it will block subscriber access to a large number of decades-old Usenet structures, including the entire alt.* hierarchy.

According to a CNET report, Verizon subscribers will lose access to all newsgroups that don’t fall under the “Big 8” family of officially-sanctioned Usenet hierarchies, including important-but-unofficial newsgroups such as, us.military, and symantec.customerservice.general.

The “Big 8” hierarchies include comp.*, misc.*, news.*, rec.*, sci.*, soc.*, talk.*, and humanities.*. alt.*, short for “alternative,” was created in rebellion of its more orderly counterparts.

The agreement to block such a large swathe of Usenet – one of the internet’s oldest applications, predating popular adoption of the World Wide Web by over a decade – comes not from the command of law, but “arm-twisting” from an undercover investigation headed by New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, which found over 11,000 images of child pornography being circulated among 88 different newsgroups. Announcements last week revealed an agreement between the state of New York and Verizon – as well as fellow ISPs Sprint and Time Warner Cable – to block the offending newsgroups after the Cuomo threatened the three with a costly legal campaign.

“The pervasiveness of child pornography on the Internet is horrific and it needs to be stopped,” said Cuomo in a press release last week.

As a result of the agreement, a recent Sprint announcement revealed that it will also block the alt.* hierarchy – though it will leave other, non-Big 8 hierarchies intact – and Time Warner announced that it will be dropping Usenet entirely. With Usenet usage eclipsed by the popularity of WWW mailing lists, message boards, and services like Yahoo! Answers, most subscribers won’t even notice; a handful of other ISPs, including AOL, have already dropped the service to a minimal fuss.

Usenet’s backers, however, remain critical of the decision. One of Usenet’s biggest strengths, they say, is the medium’s decentralized nature. Unlike internet message boards, mailing lists, and centralized services, Usenet discussions are carried via a mesh network with a weak – if present – central authority. The resulting freedom – which works both ways, as some groups contain spam while others contain spirited discussion – allowed the medium to flourish and survive in a way that other pre-Web structures (such as Gopher) have not.

CNET notes that a recent survey of the “sprawling” alt.* hierarchy showed it to contain over 18,000 discussion boards, hosting innocuous topics such as adoption (alt.adoption), The Simpsons (, and Goth culture (alt.gothic). On the other hand, the alt.* hierarchy is also home to a large number of “binary” newsgroups, used for passing around data files as opposed to conversations; some groups specialize in image files – some pornographic, some not – and others, much to the content industry’s ire, specialize in music, software, or movies.

“This is ridiculous. I actually met my wife on alt.personals, 14 years ago,” said an unnamed CNET reader. “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 Internet service providers should not be blocking whole sections of the Internet, all Usenet groups, because there may be some illegal material buried somewhere," said the ACLU’s Barry Steinhardt. “That's taking a sledgehammer to an ant.”

Cuomo said he “commends” Time Warner, Sprint, and Verizon for their initiative, and called their actions a “new standard of responsibility” that should serve as a “new model” for the industry as a whole.

Customers affected by the block will still be able to use third-party services like EasyNews, however this will, naturally, incur additional costs.

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