Note: You are reading this message either because you can not see our css files (served from Lygo, a lycos image service, for performance reasons), or because you do not have a standards-compliant browser. Read our design notes for details.
The new hierarchy, administered under the root name "net.*", is open to anyone similarly dissatisfied with the state of some or all of Usenet. Yet after only six fledgling months, it is already being criticized for its rule-laden, committee-driven design.
"What we're saying is we'd like to have things halfway organized, because we see Usenet as disorganized," said Usenet II topic "czar" Richard Sexton. Usenet problems like spamming, flames, and excessive cross-posting, he said, are "a classic example of the tragedy of the commons."
Many of the people behind Usenet II, Sexton said, have done their best to reform Usenet for many years. Finally, the thinking went, "Oh well, we'll build something else." Still, he said, the effort seeks to complement the existing Usenet.
"It's an adjunct to, not a replacement for," Sexton said. In this it resembles the formation of another major Usenet hierarchy, the alternative "alt.*" discussion groups.
Under the motto "rules not tools" - the latter referring to filtering software aimed at stopping spam and other Usenet abuses - Usenet II rules center around a "soundness doctrine."
Sites that participate in Usenet II can be deemed "unsound" by administrative vote if they don't act to maintain proper labeling of messages originating from their site. How a site does that - software, policies, even contracts with users, etc. - is up to its administrators, though Usenet II documents do make recommendations. Administrators encourage sites to run monitoring software, for example, to ensure sound postings.
A sound Usenet II message should have a valid email address in its header (anonymous, but valid, addresses are OK), identify a recognized Usenet II site as a host, and include other markings to prevent such things as orphaned discussion threads, or to filter spam that may try to work its way around Usenet II protections.
But critics say the sound site policy gives Usenet II administrators too much power over participating sites' policies. One critic especially loathes the rule regarding the inclusion of a valid email address in any message header. Predictably remaining anonymous, Usenet poster "Tommy the Terrorist" says the sound site doctrine could have a fallout effect.
"That designation could itself become a bargaining tool," he worries, and eventually be applied to discussion groups outside of Usenet II. This is why, he said, "it's dangerous to base a Net's construction around rules instead of having filters that each site sets up for itself."
"Tools not rules," he said. "That's my position."
But the notion of Usenet II one day affecting Usenet is equally repugnant to Russ Allbery, a network administrator at Stanford University and a member of the Usenet II steering committee.
Allbery said he would not want the design of Usenet II or Usenet to dominate Net discussion, he said. "I don't want to see any one hierarchy be the one way we do things."
Another strict rule of Usenet II limits cross-posting. The so-called "rule of three" mainly targets the cross-posted Usenet message intended to initiate flame wars. "No article shall be cross-posted such that it will spawn a thread in more than three groups," reads Usenet II rules. Without this capability, administrators hope to reduce the effect of messages intentionally posted to offend as many groups as possible, such as sexual messages cross-posted to religious groups.
While some of the rules have garnered the censorship label, the accusation fundamentally misconstrues Usenet's structure, said anti-spam crusader Dennis McClain-Furmansky.
"These people [ISPs and site administrators] own the machines. They choose what they do on their own machines. People who call it censorship don't understand how it works." Censorship, he said, would only apply if it was free public access - "and in case these folks haven't noticed, there is no such thing on the Net unless you own a server."
McClain-Furmansky has been part of Usenet death penalty campaigns, where network administrators band to block out all Usenet messages originating from sites hosting excessive promotional messaging, or spam. This problem was most recently underscored when major Internet service provider Netcom was threatened with, but ultimately spared, the death penalty.
Decision by Committee
The Usenet II steering committee is the final authority on what gets created. "We don't like making groups that really have no purpose and will have no traffic," Sexton said. "We're also very picky about putting something in at the second level [i.e. near the top of the name hierarchy]."
Usenet II "czars," appointed by the committee, are charged with administering topical hierarchies, including the addition of new groups and where they should go. But critics argue that the steering committee was formed from a group of acquainted people, and as such, input on Usenet II policy has been unfairly restricted.
Allbery concedes the exclusive nature of Usenet II's conception, but said doing otherwise would have presented a nearly insurmountable obstacle. Though it would have been a reasonable hope to form Usenet II by way of Usenet discussion, he said his experience in newsgroups tells him the ultimate conclusion would have been "that people shouldn't do anything new - and they never end up happening." Usenet II did "an end-run around all that and I'm not surprised that people have been annoyed."
At current count, 139 news servers worldwide offer a two-way Usenet II feed, though some sites may be carrying the incoming feed without enabled outgoing posting. Instructions for participation are available at the Usenet II site.
Meanwhile, ISPs are showing a liking for another discussion alternative for customers who may shy away from the unrestricted environment of the current Usenet.
Andreas Glocker, president of ISP Sirius Connections, said if there is enough customer demand his site would go about becoming a full participant.
Most appealing to an ISP like his, Glocker said, is Usenet II's controlled alternative to the openness of Usenet now. Focus groups conducted by his company show that people - especially teachers and parents - like America Online because they feel there is some central responsibility for what goes on in its discussion forums. Usenet II "might open up that kind of market for us."
As long as everyone knows that net.* discussion groups are more rule-driven, it's okay to offer them to customers, Glocker said. "People can make an educated choice about what they're going to get into."
But "the choice of calling a site unsound is more than just a combination of real problems - it really is a question of control," said Usenet II's anonymous critic, Tommy the Terrorist.
Nonetheless, looking to Usenet II's future, Sexton said he'd simply like to see Usenet II manage to remain consistent with its original goals: "No spam, [the ability] to email people who write articles, a namespace that doesn't get stupid, that it doesn't get tough to create groups where there is a perceived need." And most important, he said, "is that the group works together in a cooperative spirit."