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Radio free usenet

In: BYTE Magazine    On: July 1995

Commentary: Arun Mehta

Avoid high costs and thwart censorship: Post it on the airwaves

The freedom of the Internet is under attack. Legislation such as U.S. Senator Jim Exon’s proposed Communications Decency Act would potentially make employers, service providers, and carriers liable for transmitting material somehow deemed “offensive.” But the Internet is incompatible with such censorship. Users are fiercely protective of their freedom and will sabotage any efforts at censorship. The only practical way to impose stringent control over what the Internet carries is to shut it down.

Commercialization of the Internet threatens one of its most dynamic channels: Usenet. (Although it’s technically not a part of the Internet, Usenet is generally delivered via that route.) In the free-for-all discussion groups that constitute the Usenet, novices and experts mingle. You can tune in to a news group and find the best advice on everything from how to set up a modem, what photographic paper lasts longest, or where to find good Chinese food in Los Angeles.

However, participation can be expensive. While a student at a university, for instance, may have full access around the clock to all the wonderful goodies available, people in remote areas have to make long-distance calls to read and download messages. Even if they never post to a Usenet news group, just keeping up with the discussions can cost them a great deal. Usenet has a rather poor signal-to-noise ratio, and many people find it impractical to download a haystack to get at the few needles.

There is a way to attack these problems: Use unencrypted broadcasting to transmit Usenet and public mailing lists by satellite. Broadcasting is ideal for the Usenet because it is such a widely disseminated medium. Digital radio has already made available most of the hardware necessary to receive Usenet in the manner to millions in the U.S. The cost of broadcasting a message is largely independent of the number of people who receive it. It makes little difference whether the recipient lives in a remote corner of Arizona or in Manhattan.

There have also been experiments using the vertical interval of regular TV broadcasts for Usenet. This makes broadcast Usenet compatible with the existing hardware that cable operators use to provide their customers with TV and digital radio signals. The technology works – it only needs to be popularized so that the hardware becomes more widely affordable.

The disadvantage of this approach is that people need to find some other way of posting to Usenet. However, this is not a reason to reject the idea because most people receive a lot more information that they post.

Of course, most people will still have to dial in to send their messages or to receive private mail, but you have to be a prolific user to exceed a couple of minutes of transmission time a day. People who receive Usenet via their cable TV connection will feel as if they are eavesdropping on a party. They will be tempted to get an E-mail connection at least.

Broadcasting Usenet also makes the Internet uncensorable for all practical purposes. The entity responsible for the broadcasts can easily be located outside the legal reach of the recipient country. Even governments far more restrictive in their control of information than the U.S. are, in any case, reconciled to not being able to censor international radio transmissions.

In India, for instance, the government makes no attempt to censor unencrypted TV signals beamed in by CNN and Star TV, because anyone can receive them via standard equipment. However, because the encrypted Star-Movies channel requires decoding by the cable TV provider, the government insists that the movies receive prior clearance from the Censor Board.

Jerry Poournelle predicted at the start of the 1980s that the U.S.S.R. would not last out the decade because it would have to choose between having to forgo the benefits of PC technology and losing control over dissemination of information. Each PC with a printer was a potential samizdat printing press. PCs on the Internet are even more powerful. If stand-along PCS pose a serious dilemma for authoritarian regimes, the Internet may easily be devastating.

Countries seeking to compete globally will be loath to lose the benefits of Internet access. Yet, bureaucrats find the anarchic Internet bewildering and threatening. They are uncomfortably aware that if they ever attempt a Tiananmen Square in cyberspace, the students will have the more powerful tanks.