Usenet is one of the oldest discussion platforms on the Internet. Long before the World Wide Web with all its flashy websites and services became what we know today, people all over the world discussed politics, programming, or asked where the next episode of Star Wars would be released (remember that one episode of The Simpsons?).
Of course, in the last decade, downloading has become the main objective of Useneters. But whatever you use it for, the technical side has basically remained the same: A network of servers all over the world who exchange data at a rapid pace. Basically it is comparable to a file sharing network, only with servers instead of individual users exchanging data.
However, for quite a while now, Usenet and its once great server diversity has slowly declined. Universities, for example, used to offer their students free Usenet access, but since less and less users seem to be interested in it as a discussion platform, one server after the other has been taken down or replaced with partnership with, for example, Giganews, who makes seemingly “irresistible” offers to greatly decrease costs by outsourcing to them.
It doesn’t help that downloading is quite impossible with free Usenet services. After all, who would want to host a bunch of data while paying hefty bandwidth fees just people can share files?
Goodbye, Competition: How a Few Companies Are Bulding A Monopoly
Of course, most people have no idea anything has happened. After all, aren’t there tons of providers to choose from? A simple Google search reveals over a hundred providers and brands. What most users don’t realise is that only a handful of them actually has their own infrastructure, while others simply resell access to one of the big backbones. Introducing Highwinds, the new Lord of Usenet ™.
Since the great retention wars, costs of running a Usenet farm have skyrocketed. Even though disk space a lot cheaper these days than a decade from now, it’s still not as easy as it would seem to keep up with the ever-growing demands of end users. Be cheap, be fast, be reliable, and of course, have loads of stuff: Not easy in an industry that has been suffering from legal attacks.
Which is why it would certainly be appealing to just sell your brand to a large distributor and ditch the hard work of support and marketing. It’s not necessarily true that the resellers don’t have their own staff, but at least in the case of Giganews it certainly seems to be the case. When we contacted Usenet providers for our article on DMCA takedowns, all emails to Giganews resellers got the exact same response, indicating they were all managed in one place. As with Highwinds, we never received an answer from one of the many brands, but instead got one email from Emily, our affiliate manager.
Be it as it may, one thing is for sure: Almost all these seemingly independent providers have no real Usenet servers at all, but simply sell you access to the “big guys”.
Formerly Well-Known Providers Closing Shop
So, one by one, a great deal of companies formerly known to offer great Usenet access have been bought up by large players. Particularly Highwinds has become notorious for buying and buying and then buying some more, merging Usenet servers into their ever growing network. It’s as if McDonalds, Burger King and Wendys all sold you the same hamburgers, only with different names.
Now, many end-users might ask, “how is that a problem for me? I don’t want to know about all that technical mumbo-jumbo, isn’t this actually a good thing? After all, Highwinds resellers offers fast, very reliable, and last but not least cheap Usenet access.”
Well, this is most certainly true, but low and behold, there are some downsides worth considering.
1. DMCA Takedowns: Watch Highwinds Delete Files in 90 Minutes or Less
Surely no one reading this will be affected, since you are certainly not downloading copyrighted material from Usenet (or are you? See our DMCA experiment for more info on dubious takedowns), but for some users it is quite interesting to know that takedown requests from rightholders are processed at lightening speed with Highwinds. Of course, no provider bothers to check DMCA notices for legitimacy anymore (see this article for more), but 90 minutes? This is surely impressive, and quite annoying for users wishing to freely download all the good stuff.
(No, this is not saying you should download pirated stuff. This would be plain illegal and very, very evil, mind you…)
2. Damage to the Network
Since the Usenet network relies on cooperation between providers, it is not a good thing if one company has access to a very large chunk of the network. On reddit, Usenet provider Blocknews notes that nowadays, it can be quite a challenge to get so-called peering for new server. After all, why should a monopolist allow newcomers and competition to play? Without access to the network though, a Usenet server cannot send or receive posts from other servers, and can only provide what users directly post to their server. Imagine Internet like in North Korea: Only a bunch of low-quality websites, with no contact to the outer world. Infuriating!
Chance or danger? You Decide.
These are the facts. However, we have no cristal ball and cannot see the future. Is the monopoly of Highwinds a disaster for the community, or a chance? Will end-users benefit or is Usenet bound to die? Only time will tell, but we can suppose this: Change is coming. Hopefully, it will be good change.