New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday announced a deal with Verizon, Time Warner Cable and Sprint to eliminate child pornography on the networks of the three ISPs. Part of the deal is a broad shutdown of Usenet newsgroups, as News.com’s Declan McCullagh reported yesterday. Time Warner cable announced that it will stop offering Usenet to its customers altogether, and Sprint will ban all alt.* newsgroups from its Usenet servers. Verizon is apparently contemplating a similar step.
One could decry this as an overreaching measure initiated by the fear of Spitzer-like lawsuits against ISPs. Cuomo’s office found only 88 newsgroups containing child porn, and there are more than 18,000 in the alt.* hierarchy alone, ranging from alt.feminism to alt.woodworking. But there is another reason that ISPs are so eager to get rid of these newsgroups: The alt.* hierarchy is also home to hundreds of video newsgroups, offering everything from current TV shows to full DVD images, and the growing popularity of Usenet video downloading makes it increasingly costly to offer access to those groups.
Many ISPs have been offering such access as part of their online services for years. It was basically an added bonus for tech-savvy customers, part worldwide discussion forum, part original piracy hotbed, and it wasn’t too hard to maintain. That changed when video downloads became more popular. Video files get split up into smaller messages on Usenet servers, and it often takes dozens, if not hundreds, of those messages to reassemble a complete movie download. The system is somewhat fault-tolerant, meaning the movie can still be reconstructed if one or a few of those pieces are corrupted.
However, many ISP’s Usenet servers weren’t prepared for the distribution of thousands and thousands of videos. Customers started to complain about downloads being incomplete or corrupted to a degree that made repairing the videos impossible, and ISPs started to delete binary files after just a few days because they ran out of disk space, leaving even more customers frustrated.
This led to a whole industry of third-party Usenet access providers that optimize their services for music, video and software downloads. Giganews, one of the market leaders in the U.S. (and no relation to the GigaOM properties), promises to keep its users binary files for 200 days. The company’s busiest servers register up to 30,000 new messages each and every day. Giganews offers Usenet access to end users for between $8 and $20, depending on the monthly download volume.
ISPs are increasingly relying on companies like Giganews to offer their customers Usenet access as well. EarthLink has been forwarding its customers to Supernews.com since last summer, and Time Warner’s Cable ISP Road Runner outsourced its Usenet service to Newshosting.com at the end of 2006.
Time Warner did, however, decide get out of the Usenet business completely this year. The company made up its mind about this before the Cuomo deal was announced, and it looks like the reason was not child safety at all — at least not according to the Road Runner web site, which has been featuring this notice since the beginning of the month:
“Due to low subscriber usage Road Runner has decided to discontinue Newsgroups service as of June 23, 2008.”
Phrases like this usually mean that the service became too expensive to maintain. It’s likely that a few users were generating a lot of bandwidth, causing problems similar to the ones ISPs are facing with BitTorrent, the obvious difference being that Time Warner had to pay additional money to Newshosting for each downloader. Of course, cutting access to Internet services doesn’t really make for good headlines these days, which is why Time Warner must have been relieved when it got some help from the NY State Attorney General. Time Warner Cable’s chief ethics officer, Jeff Zimmerman, told the press yesterday:
“Online child pornography represents one of the worst abuses of the Internet. We stand with Attorney General Cuomo and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in our commitment to helping curb the spread of this abusive content. Among the steps Time Warner Cable is taking (is) removing Newsgroups from our Internet service.”
That sounds a lot better than “Our customer’s TV show downloading habits just got a tad too expensive,” doesn’t it?