For many years the internet resembled the American wild west: we were let loose into virgin territory and completely free to do whatever we wanted, without anyone being able to stop us and few able to track us down afterwards. Definitely there were people there before the gold rush; they were called the geeks. That’s where the analogy breaks down. In the wild west the indigenous people were run off the good land, whereas in modernity not only do they run the internet, they run much of the rest of the world also.
Back in those early days, the internet was as scary and exciting as it is today with one very important distinction. Search tools did not perform well. We were endlessly searching. Now we have a map to navigate the world wide web but there is still much on the internet which we do not easily find. Proprietary claims have been staked. The abstraction of territorial claims on the net is trite but the point of intellectual property claims is much the same as the stakes pitched for by early gold diggers. Forward thinking netizens on both sides of the debate have long prepared themselves for the battle between property owners large and small. The current legislative struggle over file sharing in the US is an argument between those who would fence off vast tracts of property and those who would keep the right to use everything free for all. There are strong arguments on both sides but although the debate rages fiercely and is now being fought through every part of the world, it is notable not for the centuries old arguments raised but for what is omitted.
For most of the planet, entry into the digital age has been got by a newly acquired passport. Although the geeks are many, the millions that followed them into the digital age have largely done so in the last decade. They have have set up home, shops and services in this brave new world without understanding its roots or grasping even the geography. They don’t need to anymore – they have their map, they have a ready made world for them. They don’t need to be engineers or boot makers to make money or relax with the internet. They pick sides in the current debates over intellectual property, choosing to download films and music illegally if that suits them best or paying modest fees if they find that more comfortable. The success of the older industries in Hollywood against the Silicon Valley upstarts will turn on the balance of convenience. Most likely, they always will because of the very nature of the internet.
Even if the draconian laws currently being promoted by Hollywood were to be passed by the US, other systems already in existence will suddenly be promoted by the most libertarian of the geeks. The population at large will discover them in much greater numbers and the arguments will begin again.
One such system is usenet. Established in 1980, usenet is the forerunner of the digital forums we are now so familiar with. The clever aspect of usenet is that there is no central server or dedicated administrator. This means that pinning responsibility for the contents of usenet on any one individual, company, website or anything else is practically impossible. Usenet is a distributed system, which means that it is held in common by vast numbers of computers around the world. The computers which comprise usenet are constantly changing and can do so forever. 99% of the data on usenet is software, films, music and images. The rest is text.
Although usenet is an internet technology, you cannot access it with your browser. You need dedicated software to access it. This is called a newsreader client because in usenet’s early days the system only handled text and each thread was called a newsgroup. The terminology persists although most users of usenet are no longer interested in the academic ‘news’ it was created to host. The system has far outgrown its original conception. Everything digital that you can buy is on usenet, for free. Everything you cannot buy because it is illegal is there too. It contains literally everything. A police officer specialising in the nasty business of catching paedophiles recently admitted to me that usenet is where the consumers of the worst imaginable pornography obtain their perverted pleasure from.
Although much fuss is made in the established media about filesharing websites, such as MegaUploads (taken down by the US government last night) and bittorrent search engines (a different distributed file sharing system), usenet is ignored. There are two reasons for this omission. Firstly, the idea that knowledge of this system could catch the popular mood is a far more challenging prospect than the existing threats. The laws favoured by Hollywood and the established media would be completely ineffectual against it.
Once uploaded, a file will stay on usenet for a certain length of time. The retention time is dictated by whichever server is hosting the file. The minimum retention time is one year. Plenty servers host files for much longer. Files can be and are uploaded anonymously and frequently. Propagation is the term used to describe servers copying updated information from other servers around the world. Whatever vague chance there might have been at identifying the source of the upload to the first usenet server a file is sent to (and proper geeks will hide that information quite easily, perhaps by using a proxy server), once the file is propagated all that information is lost. Since a downloader can choose to use a server which does not log their IP address, the practical enforcement of criminal sanctions is impossible with usenet. ISPs cannot be co-opted by legal means to tackle the problem because their customers can use encrypted connections to usenet, which prevents the ISP from discovering what sort of ‘news’ they are reading.
This means that the protocol for removing copyrighted material is defeated by committed file sharers, which are numerically vast. As with the war on drugs, this is a fight that cannot be won. For every new weapon, there is a new shield. Unsurprisingly, the proportions of armed attackers to shield bearers is similar to the ratio of those who own the world’s resources and those that do not. The poor outnumber the rich.
The second reason that our media do not discuss usenet is that our media would have to raise its intellectual standard to report the facts at all. Understanding usenet and successfully using it is still more tricky than browsing the world wide web. There is the jargon and large files have to be downloaded in portions and then reassembled. Commercial usenet providers such as GigaNews charge money for access and provide relatively easy to follow walkthrough guides. However, for the established media to cope with explaining this information would also challenge the recent role reversal between our media and our populations, whereby the population at large is now far better informed than most of the established media charged with curating the news. We can crowd source our information. Anyone on twitter is usually aware of events long before the museum pieces in the newspaper industry manage to catch onto it. 24 hour TV coverage isn’t much better. The established media has developed a culture of dumbing down its reportage. In an age of a short attention span, each media outlet fears that its customers would simply switch channel if an explanation began to resemble an Open University lecture. Meanwhile, the population buries itself in learning via social networks. When the possibilities raised by usenet become widely known, the media will be very slow to report it. By the time that they do, the story will be yesterday’s news.