Those of us who remember the Internet before the Web -- and yes, Virginia, there was an Internet before the Web -- will remember when Usenet was one of the major destinations for discussion and file-sharing. It's still there, in a quiet corner where the cognizanti hoped it would go unnoticed by the great unwashed. No more.For those unfamiliar with the term, Usenet is made up of a dispersed series of networked servers that offer a vast range of what are called newsgroups -- running collections of discussions and/or digital uploads that take in any subject matter imaginable. For example, years before social networking became the Web's Next Big Thing, I haunted newsgroups such as rec.arts.sf.written (a discussion group on science fiction literature) and comp.sys.psion.misc (for talk about Psion's long-ago orphaned line of PDAs).
The nice thing (and not-so-nice thing) about Usenet is that it is totally anonymous. It is very hard, if not impossible, to track Usenet users. For those of us who use it as a forum for discussion, that means you don't have to worry about privacy when leaving messages (unfortunately, neither do flamers, but that is the price you pay). For those who use the binary groups to exchange files, it also means that they feel safe from irritable music corporations. Exchanging files on Usenet is not simple -- files have to be split up for uploading and then reassembled after download, a task that most casual Web users don't want to take on. As a result, it never caught on with the majority of media file downloaders -- those who frequent Usenet do so quietly and, for the most part, under the radar.
However, the radar has found them. The RIAA, which has apparently dedicated itself to the mission of searching out copyright violators no matter where they might hide, has chosen for its next well-publicized target a Usenet access provider called Usenet.com. Now, keep in mind that the RIAA is not going up against the Usenet itself -- there's nobody really to sue in that huge decentralized tangle (unless you count the U.S. government, which started the whole thing). It is going up against one of those companies that offer users access to the vast library of Usenet newsgroups.
Admittedly, Usenet.com doesn't have the most subtle of marketing strategies. Its Web site states happily that, "We don't log your activity. We don't track your downloads, and neither can your ISP when you add Secure-Tunnel.com's Privacy Package." Them's fightin' words, as far as the RIAA is concerned. However, Usenet.com is certainly not the only company that provides access to binary newsgroups. In fact, almost any ISP offers some Usenet access, although that can vary.
So the question is: If the RIAA succeeds in its lawsuit, will ISPs and other access providers start restricting access to binary newsgroups? Can they? Keep in mind that these newsgroups are not simply there to trade in copyrighted material -- there are also newsgroups dedicated to media that are out of copyright, freeware and shareware, and a number of other perfectly legitimate downloads. (Of course, there are also probably a good many illegal copies of commercial software there as well -- I wonder how closely Microsoft's legal department is watching this.)
Usenet has been a relatively obscure playground for tech enthusiasts since 1979. Is that playground about to be invaded by lawyers -- and are the bulldozers far behind?