Abuse of Usenet: Background on Usenet

Usenet is a loose collection of thousands of computer sites. It was originally developed independently of the Internet using telephones to transfer electronic mail (email) and electronic news between these systems, allowing an individual to be able to post a message which could eventually be seen by every person who had access to one of these systems.

Netnews along with email and the world wide web (www) is now mostly hosted on the internet, so that rather than the original hundreds of users seeing news postings in days, now potentially millions of users world wide can seen news postings. Netnews is divided into a very large (over 20,000, no one has an accurate count) number of newsgroups, places where postings on a related subject are gathered together so that people interested in, for instance, computer architecture, don't have to read through thousands of messages about biology to find what they are looking for.

Newsgroups can be spontaneous, as part of the alt hierarchy, where they have almost no rules of participation. They can have informal charters, describing what is acceptable to post within them, and Frequently-Asked-Question Lists, called FAQS, which contain answers to questions that are commonly asked by newcomers to the group. A few newsgroups are moderated, where all messages have to be approved as conforming to the charter before they are posted. rec.humor.funny is an example of a moderated group, intended to limit its contents to jokes that are (most of the time) funny.

The netiquette for a newsgroup is that a newcomer should read the charter and FAQ, if they are available, then read the newsgroup without posting for a while to gain an understanding of what is acceptable behavior before jumping in. This is called lurking and is perfectly acceptable.

An important aspect of Netnews is that it is a form of communal anarchy. There are few rules, known as netiquette (net etiquette), which are voluntarily obeyed by users of the net and the network administrators that run it. As with any cooperative operation, this does not always work perfectly. Two important problems facing netnews now are spam and forgeries, as described below.

Spam, taken from a comedy routine by the Monty Python Flying Circus, is hard to define exactly but is commonly known as an inappropriate posting (one that doesn't conform to newsgroup charters) to multiple newsgroups, or the same posting repeated excessively to one newsgroup. For the technically minded, information on spam can be found here.

Forgery is the same thing on the net as it is in the real world: faking someone else's identity and using it to post on Usenet/Netnews or to send email. Recently there has been an increase of attacks of this sort, in which the forger posts a deliberately antagonistic message someone else's name in the hopes that people will respond heavily in a negative way, in effect harrassing the victim for the forger.

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