AOL Pulls Plug on Newsgroup Service

PERSPECTIVE The world's largest ISP is cutting off direct access to one of the oldest, coolest -- and strangest -- parts of the Internet.

America Online has quietly announced that it will discontinue providing member access to Usenet newsgroups next month. In recent days, AOL subscribers who access keyword "Newsgroups" are greeted with a pop-up message informing them of the change: "Please Note: The AOL Newsgroup service will be discontinued in early 2005."

According to a notice on AOL's Web site, the newsgroup shut-off will occur in February, severing subscribers from the thousands of discussion groups that make up Usenet.

AOL officials weren't immediately available to explain the newsgroup shutdown. The ISP's pop-up message advises subscribers that newsgroup services are available from third-party providers. The message also notes that users with separate high-speed connections may be able to arrange newsgroup access through their broadband provider. AOL users can read newsgroups over the Web using Google Groups, the message said.

The Usenet dates back to around 1980. Now that blogs and instant messaging have supplanted older Internet technologies such as newsgroups and IRC, it's unlikely that AOL users will create much of an uproar over the decision. But the event nonetheless represents a milestone in Internet history.

The AOL newsgroup shutdown comes almost exactly eleven years after the service first unleashed its members on the Usenet. In early 1994, seasoned newsgroup participants complained of the sudden influx of AOL newbies, who appeared to know little of Usenet etiquette. One dismayed user likened AOL members to drunk drivers on the Information Super Highway.

Others compared the stream of AOL users to freshmen arriving at college in autumn, and described the resulting decline of newsgroup discourse as the Eternal September. Perhaps not coincidentally, the first Usenet spam -- known as the Green Card Lottery spam -- appeared right around the same time.

Besides text-based discussions, Usenet newsgroups today are also used for the distribution of binary data, including images, MP3 music files and software programs. But the technology is much slower and more cumbersome than peer-to-peer networks for accessing such data. As a result, copyright holders and associations such as the RIAA and MPAA have been less aggressive about policing piracy on Usenet.

It's not clear whether such legal issues led to AOL's decision. Last summer, the ISP settled a long-running lawsuit brought by author Harlan Ellison. The science fiction writer had complained that AOL was partly to blame when one of its users posted digital copies of his published work in Usenet newsgroups. AOL argued that, under the DMCA, its liability for the actions of members was limited.

AOL's Usenet implementation was non-standard from the start. The service doesn't allow members to connect directly to its network news transfer protocol (NNTP) servers. Thus, AOL subscribers are forced to use the service's internal and poorly designed newsgroup reader rather than the array of better third-party programs.

But AOL did help to launch scores of local-interest newsgroups known as AOL Neighborhood Newsgroups. The future of those newsgroups, which contain job listings and personals ads, is unknown.

The newsgroups flame wars will certainly continue without the assistance of AOL members. And alt.barney.dinosaur.die.die.die and all the other bizarre newsgroup forums will no doubt survive the loss of participants from the big ISP. But the Usenet will nonetheless become a smaller, less interesting place once AOL turns off its newsgroup servers.

Brian McWilliams is a journalist and author of Spam Kings: The real story behind the high-rolling hucksters pushing porn, pills, and @*#?% enlargements.

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