Where Does Your Usenet Come From?

by Charles A. Gimon



On January 5th, 1996, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that Dennis Fazio, executive director of the Minnesota Regional Network (MRNet), one of the oldest Internet providers in Minnesota, had made an arbitrary decision to remove eight Usenet newsgroups from MRNet's news server. The groups in question had to do with either child pornography or pirated software. While these represented only a tiny percent of the ten thousand or more newsgroups available on most Minnesota news servers, some Internet observers felt that the incident set an uncomfortable precedent of self-censorship.

The Star Tribune said that MRNet "provides Internet access to an estimated 90 percent of Minnesota's Internet users through contracts with smaller Internet service provider firms, corporations, schools, and universities." There was one important issue that this and other reports missed, however. MRNet has been providing Internet connections for nearly a decade, and at one time, their organization was pretty much the only Internet game in town. MRNet is still an important hardware connection for many, many Minnesota sites. A Usenet newsfeed is not the same thing as that Internet connection, though. Usenet is really nothing but chunks of text that are shared between servers on the Internet around the world. Just because you get your Internet connectivity through MRNet doesn't necessarily mean that your Usenet newsfeed will come from there, too. A site in Minnesota could get a Usenet feed from any other Usenet server on the Internet; that Usenet traffic would flow through MRNet untouched. InfoNation did a quick check to see where the local commercial Internet providers were getting their Usenet from, and we turned up some interesting things.

There are several local Internet providers who get their primary newsfeed, as well as their Internet connectivity, from MRNet. However, three of the largest commercial Internet providers do not rely on MRNet as their primary source of Usenet news: Winternet, Skypoint, and Minn.net.

Winternet gets about 50-60% of their Usenet news from UUnet, a major backbone provider based in Virginia. Much of the rest comes from nearly a dozen sites that are one hop away from central Usenet sites at InternetMCI or Sprint. Winternet also shares news with Minn.net and Orbis, both of whom get news from Net99, and with Skypoint.

Mike Horwath at Winternet told us his system for running an efficient Usenet site: "The secret is setting up cross feeds with strategic placement around the differnet networks, and have something to offer them back in return. Only purchasing feeds is not enough, as well as only feeding locally within your region. Then, for the last item, you must have the hardware capable of taking those 20+ feeds and keep up with your customers and not run out of disk space and etc etc..."

"We feed everything we receive back into MRNet so that other MRNet customers and the U of M can get the news articles they would normally not receive in a timely manner." MRNet is not an important source of news for Winternet, according to Horwath "only 5-100 posts a day".

Jim Nelson at Minn.net told us it gets its main newsfeed from Net99, a new backbone provider, and also shares news with Skypoint and Winternet.

Skypoint gets its main feed from Cyberstore in British Columbia, Canada. They also get news from Minn.net, Winternet and the University of Minnesota as well as MRNet, according to Bryan Halvorson at Skypoint. Relying on only one source of Usenet (the way most Minnesota sites depended on MRNet a few years ago) just isn't enough anymore. Halvorson told us: "We have 4 systems that we exchange full feeds with. We've got 4 because everybody has growth problems with their news servers at some time or another and when we had 3 feeds there were times when only one of them was working for days at a time. And when news goes down the telephones really go nuts so we wanted some extra margin to make sure news keeps working...During peak times I've seen 80 people using our news server at once and interactive readers have been reading around 50,000 articles a day lately."

There were several other providers who told us that they received their Usenet feed from MRNet, Winternet, or other places. These three providers, though, stand out. Skypoint, Winternet and Minn.net all receive newsfeeds from out-of-state sources, and they all share news with each other. At one time, MRNet was the gatekeeper for Usenet in Minnesota; any Usenet news around here had to pass through their server. Today, most news at commercial sites has come through the triangle of Skypoint, Winternet and Minn.net. There is no one site at which anyone could stop Usenet, or even one group on Usenet, from coming into Minnesota.

Beyond that, there are providers that have local phone numbers in the Twin Cities, but are based far out of state, such as Netcom of San Jose, California, or Primenet of Phoenix, Arizona. Usenet at these providers is completely unaffected by goings-on in Minnesota. Local Internet users could even buy an account in the Netherlands or Australia and telnet there to read Usenet, completely outside of U.S. jurisdiction.

this puts MRNet's decision into perspective. No one site is capable of preventing information from getting to another. A decision to remove newsgroups at MRNet has little or no effect on the majority of Usenet readers in Minnesota. The list of Usenet groups that any one Usenet site in Minnesota decides to carry or not to carry becomes just another feature for Internet customers to consider when choosing a provider. And while some Internet users would prefer a completely unfiltered Usenet news server at their site, others might choose a provider that had taken steps on its own to remove the most offensive material from its own local server.

In any case, people who look into the sleaziest-sounding groups in search of scandal are likely to be disappointed. Most such groups are practically empty. Instead of dirty photos, you're more likely to find half a dozen posts telling you how to "MAKE MONEY FAST" or send a birthday card to Craig Shergold. Tedious, yes, but nothing most experienced Usenetters can't handle.

For a previous InfoNation article on Usenet, see The Battle for Usenet by Charles A. Gimon (August 1995).
Charles A. Gimon teaches an Intro to the PC class at the English Learning Center in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at gimonca@skypoint.com or ay778@freenet.carleton.ca.
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